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Potty Training Problems? You Are SO Not Alone, Mama

Experiencing potty training problems? Here's the story of our potty training failure, plus when to give up on potty training.

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Y’all. Can we just have some candid talk about potty training problems, please? Like serious, hold-nothing-back conversation about how freaking hard parenting can be, and how we make too big of a deal about milestones such as potty training? Here, I’m going to tell you the story of our total potty training failure. A major question I’m asking is when to give up on potty training. Because here’s the thing mama–you can give up–for a time, at least–and things will be okay.

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I definitely had to work my way through the guilt, both while I put Jack through our attempt at potty training, and when I decided to quit. I hope this printable workbook will help you like it did me.

If you’ve read some of our parenting articles. Learn about moving with kids, how to wean a toddler off bottle, and answer the ever-present toddler-mom question, “Does my child need speech therapy?”

I do TRY not to get hung up on milestones.

Why? Because other people created them, and I don’t want the outside world telling me what’s best for my kid.

And yet . . . standing on a chair waving my hands and shouting loudly . . . people pleaser and perfectionist over here!

So when it became totally clear that Jack was not ready for potty training, I had a hard time letting go.

But oh dear god was everyone relieved when I did!

Let me tell you about it. And hopefully help you with your potty training journey along the way.

Choosing The Best Time to Potty Train

There are all sorts of explanations of when to potty train. “Signs of readiness” is what I see them called most often. By waiting for your child to exhibit the signs of readiness, you can, supposedly, avoid potty training problems.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “current published toilet training guidelines in North American recommend:

  1. A child-oriented approach [to potty training]
  2. Not starting before 18 months because the child is not physically ready
  3. Starting when the child displays interest.”

We decided to potty train Jack when he had just turned 2, which is, admittedly, slightly earlier than the average, especially for boys.

But we decided to potty train anyway because he displayed a lot of interest and exhibited all the signs of physical readiness:

  • He asked to go potty (although he never actually used it.). 
  • He would say he needed to potty, so we’d take his diaper off and rush to the toilet, and he’d have an accident on the way. Clearly, he knew his body’s signals. 
  • He told us when his diaper was dirty. 
  • He loved sitting on the potty–climbing up, sitting, climbing down, flushing, washing his hands. It just seemed like time.

So off we went on our potty training journey!

Preparation for Potty Training

First, I read the books. I loved what I learned from 2 books.

We then tried all the things you’re “supposed” to do to prepare for potty training.

Oh Crap! Potty Training

And Potty Training in 3 Days

(And I will use some of this knowledge when we potty train again. Hopefully successfully next time.)

I bought Jack the Daniel Tiger potty book Potty Time! book, complete with buttons and noises–all the bells and whistles!

And we watched nothing but the Daniel Tiger potty episode for a whole week. (“Prince Wednesday Goes to the Potty/Daniel Goes to the Potty,” the potty episode, is available through the PBS channel on Prime Video Channels. Click here to sign up!)

We bought a floor potty to sit on the floor for quick access.

And the Adovel Potty Training Ladder and Seat for learning to go directly on the toilet. (Jack loves this one, by the way, and so do I!)

We loaded up on Daniel Tiger underwear so that Jack could learn not to pee on Daniel’s face. (In case you can’t tell, we have a HUGE Daniel Tiger fan in our house. That was Jack’s second birthday party theme, and he seriously walked straight up to the Daniel balloon and hugged it.)

We soaked a pair of underwear so he could feel the difference between wet and dry. We explained that underwear would get wetter than diapers, so it was important to keep them dry.

Then, we said “bye bye” to diapers. I got this from one of the books I’d read. We scattered Jack’s diapers all around the house, then gave him a box and played a game where we looked for the diapers and tossed them in the box.

Once we’d gotten all the diapers, Jack said “bye bye” and waved as I put the box on the front porch. “For the kids who need them more,” I told him. I wonder where he thought they were going.

Enter Potty Training Problems

Despite having set ourselves up for success, we rapidly began having potty training problems. At first, we tried potty training in underwear. Who wants to pee on Daniel’s face, after all? It seemed brilliant.

Not so, friends.

You see, Jack did not understand, despite the exercises we had done, that underwear wouldn’t absorb the way a diaper would. So he would pee straight through them, drenching the floor. To make matters worse, he’d then get super upset because that kid does. Not. like. Peeing. On. the. Floor.

And thank God for it.

enjoying-underwear-before-potty-training-problems
Loving his Daniel Tiger underwear, before underwear stopped being cool and instead became scary.

Naked Potty Training

The other problem with this approach was that we couldn’t see him start to go. So, by the time we got him to stop and had him on the potty, he was already finished. No lesson to be learned.

So we rapidly changed our approach. This is why I had read multiple books, after all. I wanted to be equipped to change methods as needed.

A “student-centered approach to potty training,” I called it. The former teacher in me came out in full force.

So we took Jack’s diaper off entirely, thinking we’d be able to spot an accident faster and get that boy on the potty! Surely he’d learn in no time now, right?

My God, I was cute.

Here’s where the problem came in.

Jack had already learned that he hated peeing on the floor, and once we took his diaper off, he knew that’s what would happen.

So he held it.

What Can Cause Problems During Potty Training?

So many things. A kid not understanding, or being afraid, or being stubborn. Or, and this one just doesn’t seem to be discussed enough–a kid not being emotionally ready.

When I say ready, I mean physically and emotionally. For Jack, it was emotional.

Here’s the thing–research backs this up. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines strongly suggests that parents do not pursue toilet training until the child is behaviorally, developmentally, and emotionally ready to begin.

Jack had the developmental components of potty training readiness, such as bladder control, covered. Oh boy, did Jack have this covered. He would just hold his bladder from the time he woke up in the morning until he went down for a nap.

He was cranky and fussy and uncomfortable because the poor kid just needed to pee. But he would not do it!

He’d hold his bladder for 4 very long, traumatic hours. Then, when we put on a pull-up for naptime, he’d immediately release. So his pull-up was soaked before he was even in bed.

Repeat between nap and dinner.

While we tried potty training at what seemed to us to be an early age, it was because of Jack’s obvious physical readiness. What we failed to consider was his emotional readiness.

Jack understood when he needed to go and could communicate that to us, but he was not able to make the transition to the actual toilet. When the mechanism of going potty changed, his discomfort was too great.

I can’t say why for sure, but if I had to guess, I would say it was likely due to communication barriers. He could alert us that he needed to potty and we could explain how to do it, but we could not know how much he understood of the physical process of “sit on the potty and release.” His communication skills were not yet to that level, and he was immensely frustrated by our inability to understand each other at this point.

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We Got Him to Pee on the Potty Twice

At first, we tried to only use the potty in the bathroom. But as I felt more and more guilty while Jack held his ever-filling bladder, I decided to move the little floor potty into the living room.

That way, he could sit on the potty while we talked, played, read books. When we got desperate, he’d sit there while he watched TV or played on the ipad.

This is when he finally peed in the potty. Once while watching TV. Once while playing on the iPad.

In other words, he only peed on the potty when he was too distracted to know he was doing it.

Again, no lessons learned on his end.

What Do You Do When Your Toddler Won’t Use the Potty?

There are so many tips for what to do when you’re experiencing potty training problems, and everyone I talked to seemed to have the miracle solution:

  • “Did you try making him drink more?” Of course. But try convincing a 2-year-old who has to pee and is holding his bladder to just down some juice. I’ll sit back and watch.
  • “What about a sticker chart?” For EVERYTHING! A sticker for sitting, a sticker for going, a sticker for flushing, a sticker for handwashing.
  • “It sounds like he was just afraid to actually eliminate on the potty. Maybe you should let him watch you go.” He has watched both Husband and me potty since the day he was born. How else do you manage to go to the bathroom with a newborn?
  • “Maybe running water would help!” Tried it. Soft drips, full flow, singing songs about water, making up potty songs. Didn’t work.
  • “M&Ms work wonders.” Yes. Yes they do. They’re wonderful at making your kid scream “Treat! Treat!” over and over again without, in any way, understanding that the “treat” was supposed to be connected with his successful use of the potty.

Obviously, none of these solutions worked for us. They made our potty training problems feel worse, not better.

So in my not-so-humble opinion, if your toddler is having potty training problems, listen to your kid and try to figure out why. Maybe it’s an issue you can overcome. Or maybe they just aren’t emotionally ready. Either way, it’s okay.

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When To Give Up On Potty Training

This madness went on for 3 ½ very long, stressful days.

And here’s the funny thing. I’d actually gone into potty training excited about it. I thought it’d be fun. Good, bonding time with Jack where I’m forced to pay total attention to him because, if I didn’t, the dog might end up lying in a pool of urine.

But it stressed us both to no end, and I spent hours researching tricks for helping your child become comfortable eliminating on the potty. This was our problem: the actual elimination.

Every book I read had emphasized one point more than any other: once you start potty training, you cannot give up. If you do, you are giving your child the power and they’ll know that they don’t have to do what you say or learn what you want them to learn.

I am calling so much bullshit! Sure, if I were potty training a stubborn 4-year-old, this may be true. I don’t know because I’ve never had a stubborn 4-year-old.

But something I do know about is teaching, learning styles, and human behavior. And this one thing was clear.

Jack was not ready to potty train. He showed all the signs, so we’d given it a really good try. But he wasn’t ready.

The Last Straw

On day 4, Jack’s nanny and I talked during his nap. I had stayed home that week to help with potty training, so I’d basically been entirely unproductive in every capacity–work and potty training my kid.

Although I did love the extra time with Jack, especially since he was already two, and it turns out that’s my favorite age so far. But I digress.

Kiki, Jack’s nanny, told me during nap time that she thought it was time to call it quits.

“I have these two more things I want to try to help him eliminate on the toilet,” I said. “If those don’t work, today will be the last day.”

So, we were going to keep at it through bedtime, then stick to pull-ups starting the next morning if my two last-ditch methods didn’t work.

That was, until Jack woke up from his nap. The second I tried to pull his pull-up down–his full, soaking wet pull-up that he would normally complain about and ask to have changed–he crumbled into complete meltdown.

This was not a toddler tantrum. This was terror.

This was my precious little boy who didn’t cry when he fell from the top of his toy slide and landed on his head. And he was screaming, sobbing, hyperventilating. He was clinging to the neckline of my shirt, burying his head in my shoulder, shouting, “No, Mama! No, mama! No, peas, no!”

The Pressure Was No Longer Worth It

I melted. I collapsed back into him.

“You’re right, baby. No no. No more. But I do need to put you in a clean pull-up because you’re really wet.”

I called Husband and announced that we would not be potty training for another second.

Please come home early, I said. This poor boy has not gotten to leave the house for 4 days, and we’re taking him to dinner.

And so we did. A dinner where we laughed, snuggled, made funny faces, and loved each other. Where Jack never had to sit uncomfortably because he was holding his bladder. Where my heart exploded with love, and I felt no sense of mom guilt because my baby was comfortable and happy.

happy-mom-and-kid-after-giving-up-on-potty-training
Silly faces at dinner, loving life after we’d put an end to the madness of potty training problems.

We tried, and we tried well. We only tried when we did because Jack seemed to be telling us that he was ready.

But he wasn’t, and at some point, I had to listen to that.

Forgiving Yourself for Giving Up On Potty Training

I’ve discussed previously discuss how external pressure to perform a certain way often leads to mom guilt.

When it comes to potty training, the books make it abundantly clear–once you start, don’t stop.

Well, Mama. I hereby grant you formal permission to stop.

If you’ve decided it’s time to potty train, I trust that you made that choice based on your best judgment. If it’s failed, I trust you’ve tried the things you know how to try to make it work for you.

And if you’re deciding it’s time to throw in the towel, I trust that you’re doing that because it’s what’s best for you and your child.

If you’re struggling with feeling guilty about your decision, download our workbook for getting rid of mom guilt below! This short workbook is designed based on my own experience to help you overcome the guilt you’re feeling so you can enjoy your child, and trust your decisions more fully.

And you need to trust yourself here.

If your kid isn’t emotionally ready, you’re the best person to know that, Mama!

Jack is still a relatively young 2, and he still isn’t potty trained. He shows even more signs of readiness now, but we haven’t tried again.

Maybe we will soon, or maybe we won’t.

For now, I’m going to follow his lead and keep this one element of babyhood just a little bit longer.

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Did you experience potty training problems? Tell us your story in the comments!

When I first told my mom the title of this blog, she looked at me incredulously and said, “Why undefining? Why not redefining?”

“Because motherhood is a role that’s been defined for far too many centuries,” I say. “And often not even by mothers themselves. It’s been prescribed and defined and changed and redefined so much that I don’t understand how anyone can feel authentic in their experience of it anymore. Not to co-opt another movement that’s happening right now, but time’s up. It’s time to learn to do this authentically, not according to prescription. For years, I’ve studied the history and theory of how motherhood has been defined, prescribed, turned into an institution with a set of rules. And I’m sick of it. It’s time to put that knowledge into action.”

“It’s perfect,” she replied.

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