5 potty training problems (and how to solve them!)

Potty training can be a challenging journey for kids. Here are the most common setbacks and how to fix them.
toddler potty training

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Once in a while, a tot will pull on his superhero Underoos, start using the potty and never look back, but most kids have a few lapses along the way. “About 80 percent of parents report having to deal with toilet-training setbacks,” says Elizabeth Pantley, the author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution. There are dozens of reasons why children who are doing well with toilet training suddenly backtrack on the road to success; here are five of the most common and how to handle them.

Roadblock #1: Routine regression
When I took my newly diaper-free toddler to Halifax for Christmas, I threw a few training diapers into the suitcase, just in case. I didn’t really think I’d need them, but two days into our trip, I was racing out to the drugstore to buy more! My three-year-old daughter may have had a long dry spell back home, but as soon as she started sleeping at Grandma’s, she sprang a leak.

Newly trained tots may not have the same success in unfamiliar surroundings. In fact, any change in day-to-day activities is a common setback, says Mia Lang, an assistant professor in the department of paediatrics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “What we consider minor could be something really big for them.” Starting school, getting a new babysitter, even a road trip could prove tricky for your little one’s potty skills.

Detour Putting your child back in training diapers may be the easiest temporary solution for vacations, but try to maintain as much of his normal potty routine as possible. Take him to the toilet after every meal, and read a book or sing a song with him if that’s what you normally do.

Starting a new school? Try having a practice run to familiarize your little one with the new potty protocol, suggests Lang. “Introduce him to the teacher, review the routine and find out whether he needs to put up his hand to use the bathroom.” And try to be patient. Chances are most problems will resolve themselves within a couple of weeks.

Roadblock #2: Playing attention
Three-year-old Cameron usually makes it to the toilet on time — as long as he isn’t distracted by something more interesting. “Sometimes, he’s so busy playing with his trucks that he just pees his pants,” says Tracey Banks, a mom of two in Georgetown, Ont. Children often become so wrapped up in an activity that they fail to notice their bodies’ signals, says Lang, especially when they’re outside or far away from a toilet. And, sometimes, they think they can hold it for way longer than they actually can — until, oops, it’s too late!

Detour Two-hour potty reminders are a good way to deal with the “hold until I explode” type, suggests Pantley. Help your child prevent accidents by watching for such telltale signs as “the pee dance” and “the clutch,” then get him to the bathroom, pronto. If he doesn’t make it in time, don’t scold him, but don’t let him get on with playing until he has changed. “When he tires of this process, he’ll likely make it to the toilet on time,” says Pantley. Don’t forget to give him a hug, sticker or lots of praise when he’s successful.

Roadblock #3: The baby brother blues
When Banks’ daughter Sara Lynn, 3½ years old at the time, was first introduced to her new baby brother, her reaction wasn’t quite what her mother expected. “She went and found the old diapers in her closet and started peeing in them again,” says Banks. The arrival of a new sibling is the most common trigger for toilet-training setbacks. Anything that causes anxiety or stress in your child can result in some backsliding, says Lang, including a move, family conflict or illness.

Detour If a new sibling is causing the setback, try to spend more one-on-one with the new big sis. It’s also a good idea to hold off on further toilet training (or postpone starting) if you have a potentially stressful event coming up. Aim to start during a quiet time in your family’s life, not when you’re feeling too rushed and busy to give your little trainee the attention she needs.

Roadblock #4: The toilet monster and other troubles
Evelyn Robert, three, was adapting well to the big toilet until the temperature dropped — along with her enthusiasm. “Our bathroom and toilet seat were cold,” laughs her mom, Jane McMullen of Toronto. “Once spring came around, she started using the toilet again.” Many young children are leery of dark or empty rooms, says Pantley. “There’s nothing scarier than the cavern of a dark bathroom at the end of an empty hallway.” Other common toilet fears include a child’s fear at seeing her poop go down the toilet, fear of seeing or hearing the toilet flush, and fear of painful bowel movements caused by constipation.

Detour Try to figure out what’s turning her off using the potty. She may have been scared by the auto-flush in a public bathroom, or a sudden bout of constipation may be making it painful to go. If constipation is a factor, try implementing a few dietary changes, including adding more fibre and water to make her stools easier to pass and avoiding constipating foods like bananas, rice, applesauce and cheese. Don’t encourage her to sit on the toilet and try to push, since this can cause small, painful tears around the anus, warns Lang. You might also try a stool softener (check with your doctor first) and apply petroleum jelly to the sore spot to alleviate any pain until her stools become softer.

The size of your toilet might also be an issue, so a footstool she can brace her feet against might help. Banish other “toilet monsters” with a well-placed night light and a few flushing sessions together to reassure your child that she won’t disappear down the toilet along with her poop. But if she continues to resist, don’t push it, say the experts. Take a break and let her use diapers until she’s ready to try again.

Roadblock #5: A really embarrassing incident
The cute Winnie-the-Pooh cot my mom set up for Scotia won her heart, but her bladder was another matter. When she woke up soaking wet, she was mortified. It didn’t help when a family member told my daughter she was “far too big to be wetting the bed.” Being teased or scolded for having an accident can quickly erode confidence, says Lang. “Even one episode of teasing can be emotionally harmful.”

Detour Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings, cautions Lang. Acknowledge that he’s sad and upset, and reassure him that these accidents can happen to anyone. If your child has a very public accident (while playing T-ball, for example) and decides he wants to go back to wearing training diapers temporarily, make sure his teammates don’t know about his switcheroo. You don’t want to set him up for any more teasing or humiliation. Always keep a change of underwear and clothing handy, especially at school or daycare. And whenever your child says he “has to go,” take him immediately, even if it means excusing yourself in the middle of a conversation.

For more potty training tips check out this video:

Read more:
Potty training: Find the best strategy for you
Flush with success: solving toilet-training problems
Potty training tips that work

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