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Expert potty training tips for parents

Here's everything you need to know about potty training, accidents, setbacks and success.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Potty training is a process that can be challenging in the best of times. What’s normal with potty training and what isn’t? Readers shared some pressing questions with TODAY Parents. Here, pychiatrist Gail Saltz weighs in:

My 4-year-old has regressed with potty training and keeps having poo accidents. Help!

For most parents, potty training can be quite stressful. You are often trying to get your child to do something he or she is not especially interested in doing. Parents also can feel a lot of pressure because they think there is a very clear timeline for potty training, but in fact, there is a wide range of “normal.” In addition, more than half of all kids experience setbacks while potty training, and setbacks tend to freak parents out. Many start wondering, “Is something wrong? Will my child never get out of diapers?” — but please don’t worry. Setbacks are common, and children eventually move on and continue their training.

Parents sitting near potty.
Nothing can strike fear into parents' hearts like an ominous child's potty.Shutterstock

It’s fairly common for kids to train to pee and poo in the toilet at different times, with pee training often happening first. Why is this the case? Quite simply, many toddlers find pooing in the toilet to be scary. To them, it may feel like they are losing body parts as the poo goes into the toilet to be flushed away. Other aspects of the experience may scare them as well: The loud splash into the water, the loud flush of the toilet. They also may feel (and dread) pain when they go, especially if they’ve been holding it in and becoming constipated.

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The poo “accidents” that you mentioned may stem from your child being nervous about going, holding it in and then having it come out when there isn’t enough time to get to the toilet. Or if children are truly terrified of the toilet, guess what? They’ll just go in their underwear.

So what can parents do? For starters, help children with their fears on a few different fronts:

  • Explain to them that poop is not part of their bodies — it is the waste from leftover food, and it will not harm them.
  • Take them with you to see pooping in action so they can witness firsthand that nothing scary happens.
  • Scoop the poop from their underwear or diaper into the toilet for them to see. Wave bye-bye to it as it flushes away.
  • Have them tell you they need to poop and put on a diaper for them to do so. Then you can transition toward sitting them on the toilet in their diaper to poop. From there, you can try cutting a hole in the diaper so that when they go, it can fall through the hole into the toilet. Once that isn’t scary, you are on the road to being diaper-free!
Little girl on potty.
Check it out, Mommy and Daddy! This isn't so scary after all!Shutterstock

Here are a few other rules of engagement to keep in mind:

  • Above all, avoid shaming them for accidents. Negative reinforcement doesn’t work well, and it can traumatize children and lengthen the whole process.
  • Do give positive reinforcement for a job well done. Let children know that when they poop in the toilet, they will get a special sticker or something else small and non-sugary (because the treats can add up fast!). Such incentives have been shown to work very well.
  • Know when to show extra sensitivity. If something very stressful is happening in your child’s life, such as family tension or a significant loss, then do not be surprised if he or she regresses in potty training. This is to be expected. Lots of kindness, patience and TLC will help your child to feel less stressed and resume potty training in due time.

My 4-year-old isn’t having accidents — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. He won’t stop using the potty! He’s needing to go constantly, and we have to stop wherever we are to use the bathroom. Is this normal?

These are several possible factors at work here. If your son is newly trained, then the anxiety of having an accident can cause him to charge to the bathroom whenever he feels anything at all. His nervousness will lessen over time if that’s the case.

Or, if you used a lot of positive reinforcement for potty training, he may have become a bit trained to go as often as possible for rewards. To remedy this, you can stop giving him specific rewards for going.

Child sitting on potty.
Don't mind me ... I just find this toilet paper roll FASCINATING.Shutterstock

Another possibility: If he is not newly trained and this just started suddenly, make sure he does not have a urinary tract infection, which can cause the feeling of always having to go. He also may be dealing with something that’s making him feel anxious. Ask him whether anything is worrying him; if there is, have him draw or play out the thing that is worrying him. If you’re seeing other signs of anxiety, such as difficulty sleeping, increased tantrums or a return to younger behavior, then his bathroom issues might be connected to anxiety, which is not uncommon in young children.

Take heart: Most potty-related issues make parents more worried than they need to be. Setbacks and obstacles are completely normal, and they are not a reflection of your parenting skills! Try not to judge yourself (or others) based on a child’s toilet-training ability.

Most important of all: Try to wait for signs that your child actually feels ready to train. Such signs include interest in the potty, a desire to wear big kid underwear, a willingness to sit on the potty and the ability to notice a need to go. Starting too early, before a child is really ready, is often fruitless and stressful for everyone.

This story was originally published July 14, 2015.