My Child Won't Go Potty in Public Restrooms

Potty Training Problems

A mom writes:

"My daughter is 3 years old and has been doing great with potty training so far. When we're in public, however, she will scream and cry and refuse to sit on the potty. She demands a diaper and will go poop in it immediately after I put it on. If I don't give her a diaper she will stand there on the spot and go in her pants. What can I do?"

Not wanting to go potty in public restrooms is a common problem and there are several ways you can handle it. Give some of these solutions a try:

1
Go Potty Before Leaving Home and Keep Your Outings Short

Girl Using the Potty
Potty Problems. Laura Natividad / Getty Images

If you know you're going to be out and about, have your daughter use the bathroom before you leave the house. Keep your trips down to a minimum and when you do go out, make your trips short and sweet so you'll be home in time to go potty when the urge comes up again.

This is really avoidance, however, rather than trying to solve the problem. For this reason, I recommend this course of action only when the problem is severe or if your child is starting to withhold going to the potty at all. This is a temporary solution and you should try some of the suggestions below very gradually and rely on this less and less.

2
Go Potty in Public Yourself

Even if you don't have to go and she doesn't have to go, any time that you find yourself in public turn it into an opportunity for her to see you using a public restroom and learn that it's not a scary place after all. Even if you just pop in to wash your hands or check the mirror, take her along. This gives her a chance to check things out without any pressure or power struggle. She can check things out and familiarize herself with the environment and not focus on anything else. Familiarity brings comfort, so it can lead her to be less apprehensive about going potty in public herself.

3
Reduce the Noise Level

Probably the biggest problem with public bathrooms is noise. For kids who are sensitive to it, it can be very jarring to their senses. Carry ear plugs with you or load your iPod with a few favorite songs to enjoy while on the potty. Or load a video iPod or phone with funny movies -- just be careful not to drop it (ewww). Avoid restrooms with lots of stalls. More stalls = more noise. Avoid hand blowers -- take your own paper towels. At movies, hit the family or unisex restroom (these usually have just one toilet) instead of the big one. Let her leave the stall and wait by the sink while you flush for her. Choose a stall that doesn't have other stalls around it or one that is surrounded by unoccupied stalls to keep the noise at a distance.

4
Take an Insert or Sit with Your Child

Sometimes you can make an unfamiliar place feel more friendly by bringing something from home. You can take your own potty seat (that's a huge feat, but it works for some) or an insert that fits inside the public toilet seat. A huge obstacle for some kids is the fear of falling into the potty. If this has already happened to your child and they fear it is going to happen again, then I would say taking along an insert is a must. I've seen potty training halt for months over a child slipping off the seat and their bottom hitting the water. If you don't want to take a seat or insert along, then sit with your child. Hop on the toilet far enough back to leave some room for your child, get her situated and hold onto her while she goes potty.

5
Avoid the Splash

Another obstacle can come from the splash of water when a child is going poop. To avoid this, crumble up some toilet paper and drop it in the toilet before your child goes so that the poop will have a bit of a landing pad. This can be a big issue for kids who are used to using a potty chair at home where there's no water inside.

6
Go Somewhere Fun

Distraction can be such a powerful tool when raising kids and here it's no exception. If you go somewhere fun, you might find that your child is so distracted and focused on everything else that they forget all about not wanting to go to the bathroom in public. This was certainly true of my son who would not go poop, period. At home or out! We headed to Toys R Us and explored until he had to go. He was so comfortable, he went right in and pooped without a fuss or tear and was right back out checking out all the toys moments later. It was a breakthrough day, as he never had a problem going in public after that. So pick somewhere your child loves to go and see if it relaxes her or distracts her enough to try the public potty.

7
Make a "No Potty, No Play" Rule

You can also use fun places to your advantage with an "If, Then" statement. "If you go potty, then you can play at the park." Choose somewhere you know she loves like a park or ball pit at the pizza place. Beforehand, talk about all the fun things she likes to do there. Once there, be very matter-of-fact and tell her she needs to potty before she plays. (This is also a good strategy if she hates interrupting play to go potty.) If she refuses, tell her that you'll have to go home because she can't poop or pee on the public toys. Give her a chance to change her mind, but if she refuses to go -- and this is the most important part -- follow through and go back home. If you don't, she'll know you're not serious and this tactic won't work.

8
Go Somewhere Familiar or more Intimate that Isn't Home

Sometimes, there are different levels of public that your toddler will tolerate and a gradual progression can work wonders. Try going to a family member or a friend's house and use their bathroom. Then try using the bathroom at church. Then try the bathroom at a small, cozy bookstore or a coffee shop. Your child may benefit from some exposure to a variety of different and unfamiliar bathrooms that aren't home, but maybe the 8,000 noisy stalls at Wal-Mart is a bit of overkill for her right now. Work your way up to it.

9
Ditch the Diapers and Pull-Ups

When your daughter demands a diaper and you have one ready, she knows it's there for her. It becomes a crutch. But does she really need it? I hear you when you say she'll have an accident if you don't give her a diaper, but what I also hear is that she will go immediately after putting a diaper on and that she will intentionally pee or poop in her pants if you refuse to give her a diaper. So, this tells me that she knows what she's doing and this is a power struggle issue for her. You should just ditch the diapers completely. Make sure she knows they're gone and that you're not buying any more since she's so good at using the bathroom. I bet you'll have a different outcome when she knows they aren't there vs. you withholding them from her.

10
Practice, Practice, Practice and Praise

Once your child goes successfully, commit to getting lots of practice. Run lots of small errands around potty times to reinforce the new skill. While you're near the restrooms, double check and see if she needs to go. Even if your child is only making a little progress -- now she's willing to stand in the stall while you go, but she's not ready to make the leap herself, for example -- keep practicing and being positive. Give her praise for each effort she makes, but don't overdo it.

11
Have Her Clean it Up

If she has an accident, make sure she is the one doing most of the clean-up. If you're not already doing this at home, start. Please. Don't spring it on her out in public. Make sure she knows this is her job ahead of time. This is not just a lesson in independence and responsibility, but it's a deterrent for future accidents. Cleaning up accidents is messy and a lot of work. She'll learn to avoid them in the future when possible but not if you're the one doing all the work. I know some parents think this is mean or that their kids can't handle it, but trust me, if your child is ready for and capable of potty training, then she's ready to clean up her own messes. Just make sure you don't treat it like a punishment. It's just part of life.

12
Check Your Own Apprehension

Remember, too, to be aware of any signals you might be sending. If you're frantically laying down 20 sheet protectors, spraying Lysol everywhere, bathing her in hand sanitizer afterward and constantly telling her not to touch anything, then she might be picking up on your own apprehension. It's one thing to be safe and cautious, but it's another to be fearful and paranoid. Of course you want your child to follow proper sanitary procedures, but for now, put aside any visible fear that might be affecting your child's comfort level with public restrooms.

Continue Reading