3 skills to support your potty trained toddler that is still pooping in their pants
Your toddler has made leaps and bounds this last while. They're comfortable and nearly reliable going to their potty to pee. They have pooped in the potty - yay! And you see that they are totally capable of being accident free.
Which leaves you asking:
"Why is my potty trained toddler still pooping in their diaper?"
We're here to potty train naturally, intuitively, and with purpose. In other words we are supporting our toddlers as they work towards potty independence. When we frame it as building independence, we can more easily see that there are a broad range of skills our little ones have built a level of capacity in, and others they need to work on in order to successfully pee AND poo in their potties.
If your little one is recently successful peeing in a potty, but hasn't quite nailed poops yet, this post is for you. We're going to talk about the 3 biggest skills we can support to help naturally motivate them to put those poops in the potty.
Recognizing a poop is coming
Let's imagine the most natural scenario possible for our little ones. Let's go back. WAY back. Estimates date the earliest use of human clothing to some 83 000 - 120 000 years ago. The earliest known pants date back to the 10th-13th century BCE. All in all, having a covered bum is a relatively recent advancement. That means that up until recently (like 1950's recently, when highly absorbent disposable diapers were invented) little humans would have felt every pee and poo that left their body.
That is a lot of feedback by the time they were able to start taking themselves to pee and poo in an appropriate location like a potty, or a spot in nature for those of us that appreciate the ease of the outdoors!
How much feedback?
Given toddlers pee on average every 2 hours throughout the day, let's assume that's 12x a day over 18 months or 548 days. Which equals 6570 pees by 18 months old. But we all know that's a conservative estimate because younger babies pee more often. So woah. That's a lot of experience feeling that wet dribble and discomfort on their skin.
How about poops? Toddlers 1-3 years old poop on average 2x per day, and extending that across the same 18 months or 548 days, that gives us 1096 squish, warm, and uncomfortable poops.
If your toddler has been in disposable diapers for most of their diapered life it makes sense that they need time to gain feedback.
How do we help our toddlers recognize that a poop is coming?
A. Time completely clothing free
Yep, let those poops and pees run down their legs and hit the floor. Natural consequences are the greatest teachers. Children naturally do not want to soil their area or their things. And will learn from our repeated guidance as we clean up and reinforce that poops go in the potty. Remember to keep your tone neutral and factual - "There's Kiki's poop on the floor. We need to clean it up Kiki. Next time, put your poop in the potty please. Here - take this tissue and put the poop in your potty please. Thank you for helping to clean up."
B. Talk about the sensations that come before a poop
Tummy grumbles, feeling heavy, feeling like pushing or grunting, stinky toots. Being a little silly and animated can really help break the potty talk ice and get your little one feeling more comfortable sharing their experiences with you.
C. Normalize others recognizing a poop is coming
"Oh yes, baby Fiona is crying because she feels a poop coming soon." "Tory will meet us at the park soon. She felt a poop coming and is sitting on the potty waiting for it to come." "Yes puppy Toby looks SO happy after making a poop. He felt it coming and went to his potty spot to make a poop. Toby feels so good now!" - Make it up as you go folks. Look for any opportunity to talk about how someone else is late, uncomfortable, waiting, or feeling great after realizing that a poop was coming and making it to the potty in time.
Our toddlers learn so much from modelling what we show them. "I want to do the puzzle with you too but I feel a poop coming in my tummy so I'm going to go sit on the toilet and wait for it to come. Let's do the puzzle after I poop.". "Sorry Dad - I want to help you make dinner but I think a poop is coming. I'm going to go sit on the toilet and see if it's time to poop. I'll be back soon." "Oops - I have to stop reading my book because I feel a poop coming. I have to quickly get to the toilet. Go mommy go!" - Narrate your own needs, make them up to help show your toddler exactly what they should be doing.
Distinguishing between poops and gas
As you saw in our napkin math above, there is a considerable difference in the number of feedback opportunities between pees and poops. Pair that with the confusion that comes from gas vs. poop and it's reasonable to see why toddlers are more easily able to make it to the toilet for pees than for poops.
According to PhD Matt Barton, medical researcher at Australia's Griffith's University, the ability to distinguish between a fart and a poop begins developing before our little ones are born. If you're keen to learn more about it and how it relates to the pectinate line, feel free to watch the 2 minute explainer here >
How can we support our toddlers as they learn to distinguish between toots and poops?
A. Play the "Toot Orrrr Poop" potty game
"Sometimes it's a toot, sometimes it's a poop! Mommy doesn't know. Does Jack know?". Covering your eyes in surprise. Guessing the wrong answer on purpose. Not looking, and then returning to find a surprise in the potty. These are great connection building games that take the pressure off visiting the potty only for poops and can help catch those "thought it was a toot but there's really a poop" surprises. Make sure to reinforce the learning when that happens - "Good thing you made it to the potty for 'Toot Orrrr Poop'! High five/Happy dance/Hug. You did it!".
You can introduce the game by playing it yourself and narrating the what you are doing with your little one. (Yep, encourage them to guess, or to leave the room and come back to see the surprise!). And by inviting toys, stuffed animals, or other close family to play along.
B. Schedule poop time based on their body's schedule
How well do you know your little one's natural pee and poo schedule? If you're still learning, a few fun and easy days clothing free can help you get a good idea. If, for example, after lunch is usually poop time, you can work with their body's natural rhythm to strengthen the association between an anchor in their routine (in this case, lunch), and a new addition to their routine (potty time).
You'll need to come up with something special to do during that time. A special book that they love to explore slowly - Alphabet books with daily objects are great! Finger rhymes and interactive songs are great. We're generally a low tech/analogue family but when our second was born and I didn't have the energy to encourage 5 minutes of waiting time for a poop, we made use of tech and gave our little one time to explore the Potty Time with Elmo App. This is lovely time to work in some 1-to-1 connection time, whatever it is, to help them feel comfortable and relaxed enough to make that poop happen!
Understanding poop needs to go in the potty, and not in pants.
A child's sense of hygiene starts at birth. Newborns have a keen sense of feeling soiled, and following traditional practices of infant hygiene also known as Elimination Communication, are communicating their needs to pee and poo from day 1. Going back to Skill 1's exploration of going back to what's natural, communicating about toileting needs has been a significant part of the emerging parent/baby bond up until recently.
In today's strong disposable diapering culture, we've trained our little ones to ignore these natural signs of wanting to stay clean, and trained them instead to become comfortable eliminating as needed into their absorbent diapers, with some little ones becoming dependent on the association with diapers to eliminate. (Every parent who has a little one that asks for a diaper so they can go poo knows what I'm talking about.)
If your disposable diapered babe doesn't seem to mind pooping in their pants, there are a lot of great ways to nurture that lovely natural sense of wanting to be clean.
How can we nurture our toddlers natural desire to be and stay clean?
A. Model wanting to be clean and narrate your actions.
Show your toddler your dough covered fingers from baking cookies. "You want a hug? My hands are squishy and sticky. I want to wash them. Ah - that feels SO GOOD to have clean hands. Now I can give you a hug." Walk barefoot in the grass after a rain and step into some mud. "I walked into mushy mud - oops! They feel mushy and wet. I want to wash them. Ah - that feels SO GOOD to have clean feet." "I made a poop in the toilet but my bum still feels dirty. I'm going to wash it in the shower. Then I can get dressed and we can go to the park. Ah - that feels SO GOOD to have a clean bum.". I know it will feel silly at first, but stick to it and you'll notice your toddler wanting to do the same.
Find ways to include family, friends, toys and even neighbourhood animals in the "wanting to be clean" conversation. "Nanna puts her poo in the toilet. She doesn't want feel dirty. Daddy puts his poo in the toilet. He doesn't want a dirty bum." "Yes, kitty got poop on her bum. Now she needs to clean up. She doesn't like to feel dirty." "Baby bird doesn't want to poop in the nest. Poop will make it dirty. She flies onto her potty tree to go poo. Then she can have a nap in her nest."
B. Connect poop (and pee), with getting sick or having "sick" skin (infection)
In a gentle and honest way we can help our little ones understand the natural consequences of keeping poop on skin - diaper rash or infection. Without shame or disgust, we can share examples or even create scenarios to support wanting to keep poop away from our skin. "Baby Jamie has to go see the doctor. The poop stayed on his bum and made his skin sick. Now he needs medicine. Ouch - poor baby Jamie.". "Yes Baba, this is baby Baba with daddy. When you were a baby you had sick skin on your bum. Daddy took you to the doctor and the doctor gave daddy medicine cream to make your bum better. But now you can put your poop in the potty so your skin doesn't get sick. Yay!". "Look, Auntie Kay sent me a photo of baby Q's diaper rash - ouch. His bum hurts from poop."
If your little one complains of a sore bum, you can also relate it to their recent poops on their bum. "Ouch that hurts. I can see your skin looks red. Put your poop in the potty and your skin will feel better.".
This is a great time to model and offer compassion, connecting over these beautiful beginnings of self care.
Here's a quick recap on how support potty independence with a toddler who pees in the potty but still poops in their pants.
Nourishing our little ones skills is the only way to naturally reach a potty independent toddler that has a healthy relationship to their body, a budding self-care and hygiene practice, while maintaining a secure connection with them.
By viewing potty training as potty independence, it helps us to turn to our little ones and view the skills they have, and need to work on in order to make it to the potty for pees and poos reliably.
How an we best encourage them to poop in the potty?
1. Support them as they learn the signs that a poop is coming by having as much clothing free time as possible, by modelling and narrating the signs of a poop coming, and by normalizing this practice in others (humans, toys, and animals alike!)
2. Build up their ability to distinguish between a poop and toot by playing the "Poop Orrrr Toot!" potty game and by scheduling regular potty time during their regular "poop window".
3. Help them get back in touch with their natural desire to be clean by modelling how to get clean and how good it feels, and narrating each step, and by gently and honestly connecting the consequences of poop on skin to real life examples.
At the end of the day, the awareness it takes to notice and respond to toileting needs is a HUGE undertaking for your toddler with major payback when it comes to the health benefits and relationship benefits of building early toileting skills. It will take time, practice, and accidents, so remember that accidents are our teachers - every accident is an opportunity to learn, to take ownership, and to connect.
The stories of parents "potty training in 3 days" are reserved for parents who have left potty independence until nearly 4 years old or after, using coercive methods with external motivation to drive their little ones behaviour. Here we're all about slow, sustainable, connection building and respectful. And while the results aren't instant, the journey full of riches.
I'm always humbled by our ability to be the tone setters in the relationship. Keeping it light and playful with moments of trust and honesty will always pair well with neutrally delivered factual information. This combination allows our toddlers to gain the much needed context and information they need to find their own internal motivators and own their progress. No need for shame, coercion, or prizes. Following your toddlers pace and interests with connection building moments will encourage your toddler to naturally move towards full potty independence with a trust and self-awareness that rests on the respectful parenting practices you've worked so hard to build your family around.