Preschooler toilet troubles

Why some kids still face potty challenges — and why it's not as unusual as you might think

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While most children use the potty or toilet by age three, it’s not unusual to face a few challenges. When my daughter was a preschooler, she refused to use facilities that didn’t look like the ones at home; she’d rather wet her pants than sit on a toilet that was the wrong shape or colour.

Other children have their own issues: They’ll use the potty at daycare, but not at home; they may stay dry in the day, but wet the bed at night; or they may regress after a period of doing well. And some may only be starting to learn to use the potty at this age.

When to get more help
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends talking to your child’s doctor if your child:

•    Is older than four and still not using the potty or toilet;

•    Was toilet trained for at least a few months, but now is regressing;

•    Is withholding stool, experiences pain when using the potty, or has blood in the stool.

How to help a child with potty-training issues on track
Terry Carson, a Toronto parenting coach, recommends that parents get preschoolers who have potty-training challenges to clean up after themselves as part of the process of becoming fully toilet proficient. “Help the child understand that he or she can manage toileting, including accidents. Mom and dad must remain neutral, not making comments like ‘Oh, it must feel uncomfortable sitting in those wet pants.’”

•    Put cleanup supplies in the bathroom, including plastic bags for wet or soiled clothes, soap or wipes to clean up the child’s body, and easy-to-put-on clean clothes to change into.

•    Practise the steps with the child for cleaning up and changing after an accident, including bringing the plastic bag of soiled clothing for you to wash.

•    Set up ground rules: no sitting on carpeted floors or on couches with wet or soiled pants, for example. As long as these rules are followed, the decision to change or not change should be up to the child. Don’t make comments like “Something stinks.”

•    Be positive and patient. Calgary parent educator Judy Arnall adds that if your child does experience a relapse, it’s worth exploring possible reasons, such as new stresses in his life or fears about his poop being flushed away. “And remember, it won’t always be this way!” she adds.

Read on for one mom’s potty training story from our February 2012 issue >

As long as three-year-old Colin was naked from the waist down and there was a potty close by, he’d pee in it “about 80 percent of the time,” says his mom, Jane Knight,* of Victoria. But as soon as she covered her son’s little bottom with underwear or pants, he took it as a cue to pee in them.

“Then he’d complain that his pants were wet and have a bit of a meltdown. It seemed like no matter how many times we tried to explain it to him, and show him that pants were not the same as diapers, he’d still pee in them as though they were,” Knight says.

There was an entirely different problem for Julie Lindsay’s* son, Malcolm, who’d been peeing in the toilet just fine from the age of 18 months and wore underwear all the time. But at nearly four years old, he was still not willing to poop in the toilet. “We encouraged him to go sit on the toilet, we read books, offered treats, even told him he could stand over the potty if he didn’t want to sit,” says Lindsay. “He would not go. Instead, he’d go behind the table, poop in his pants and come tell us when he was done. Even if I brought him the potty in mid-poop, he would stop, and only finish later when I wasn’t watching.”

Knight thinks Colin’s situation came about, in part, because they were doing a massive renovation at their house. Since they didn’t want him running around half-naked or making puddles of pee in places that would be hard to clean, they often resorted to putting him back in diapers. The arrival of a stance can also lead to a setback.

Lindsay ultimately took a “no pressure, whenever you’re ready” approach. “He always sat on the toilet to pee, and one day he called out to us: ‘Look, I made a poop!’” she says. Soon he was using the toilet to poop more often than not, and by the time junior kindergarten started, he’d stopped having accidents altogether.

For Colin, more intensive efforts by his parents, once the reno was done, helped him get on track, although once he takes his pants off to use the potty, he’s not inclined to put them back on. “We’re still working on that,” says Knight.

*Name changed by request.

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