When parents bring in their delightful, verbal 3-year-old for refusing to poop on the potty, it may seem laughable. But with impending preschool and costs of diapers, stool refusal can be a major aggravation for families! Fortunately, stool refusal is problem you can help solve.
Commonly a healthy, typically developing boy stands and urinates in the toilet just fine, but sneaks off behind the sofa to poop. Parent gyrations have gone from cajoling, to punishing, to offering trips to Disney! Flaring tempers can set the stage for stool refusal to be a power play.
There are a number of reasons stool refusal may give clues to child and family tendencies and relevant intervention. We always should be alert to rare medical problems such as Hirschsprung disease or traumas (from slammed toilet lids to sexual abuse). But while learning to use the toilet for urination and defecation generally occur around the same time, there are pitfalls making pooping in the potty different. An impending stool provides stronger sensations and more advance warning than urine and tends to come at regular times, making it logical to start toilet learning with sitting on the potty after meals.
But once seated on the potty, stools can require some waiting – not a typical toddler forte! While running to sit has novelty at first and may be reinforced by celebration, this quickly becomes routine and boring. Very active or very intense children especially hate having their play interrupted by a trip to the bathroom. Oppositional children just won’t perform if they think the parent cares! And unlike for urination, everyone can inhibit defecation long enough for the urge to pass. Repeated stool retention from ignoring the urge makes stools dessicated and harder, with resulting pain when finally passed. One painful stool makes many a young child decide “Never again!” and simply refuse the toilet. A rectal fissure can both start or complicate the cycle of withholding. There is no real substitute to industrial strength stool softening when this happens. I prescribe propylene glycol (Miralax) or psyllium (Naturcil) in doses that produce 2-3 soft stools per day before trying to work on the behavioral component. A change in diet to more fiber (popcorn, Fig Newtons, mini wheats, or bran) and “p fruits” (Peaches, Pears, aPPles, graPes, Pineapples, Prunes, aPricots) and water is healthy and helpful long term, but rarely enough for initial unclogging. For oppositional children, you should soften stools but work on general compliance before addressing stool refusal specifically.
During unclogging and establishing a new stool pattern, the toddler should be matter-of-factly put back in diapers (not pull ups) saying “Oh well, you are just not ready for pants yet.” Dramatically placing the treasured Superhero underwear on the top shelf increases motivation (or promised if none have been acquired). Returning to diapers without shaming the child is key, and all caregivers need to buy in. They need to be good “actors,” conveying that they don’t really care about toileting to reduce the power struggle. If controlling poop is a battle, only the child can win!
When the soft stools are occurring several times per day, I suggest “M&M treatment”: 1 for sitting, 2 for peeing, and 3 for pooping = 6 potential M&Ms per episode. The “1 for sitting” (the easiest part), is not painful and restores the habit of complying. Remember, M&Ms are no match for a game on an iPad! By charting the times of stools, the parent can remove electronics ½ hour before the expected poop and restrict the child to one room of the house with a potty nearby. Parents can interact, but should avoid making this a rewarding playtime. When the child uses the potty rather than their pants, the room restriction is removed until the next window for pooping. If they poop outside the toilet, they remain restricted (and no electronics) until the next window (even the next day).
Some parents are especially sensitive to the smell and mess of stools and pass that attitude along to their child by saying “Ugh, you stink!” or “I can’t stand this mess!” or even handing the child to another caregiver in a gesture of rejection. These messages are not missed by the child, who may then not want to deal with the mess, either. I coach parents to stay at least neutral about stools, reminding them that, “Your child is going to have to poop her whole life!”
Demanding a diaper and then getting the special intimacy of bottom cleaning can be reinforcing. If there is a younger sibling, diaper changes may be a desired opportunity for the toddler to regress and retain some “baby privileges.” Other clues to this dynamic include thumb sucking, baby talk, clinginess, or being rough on the sibling. One part of addressing this issue is to prescribe “babying” the toddler by holding in arms, rocking, talking baby talk, offering a pacifier, and feeding him during daily parent-child one-on-one Special Time. This sounds crazy to parents aiming for grown up toileting, but I promise them the child will not go backwards! It addresses the child’s deep fear that the nurturing of infancy is no longer available.
You may have noticed that boys are much more likely to refuse stools than girls. Some of this difference may be that high activity, but learning to urinate standing up also is fun, a Big Boy feat, and a source of pride to fathers. If regular sitting to poop has not been well established before the fun of standing to pee is offered, the little guys are not so interested in sitting again to poop. Plus the wiping and hand washing after poops are further aggravations delaying return to the Legos. But more! By around age 3 years, both genders make the horrifying discovery that boys have a penis and girls don’t. At this age of confusion about potential transformations, the obvious conclusion is that the girl’s penis was lost! And that turd disappearing down the toilet looks a lot like a dismembered body part! Reassurance and education is in order. I address this with my “Penis Talk”: “Boys are made with a penis and girls are made with a vagina. (For boys:) When you get big like your Dad, your penis will be big, too. No one can ever take your penis away. (For girls, a less common concern.) You have always had a vagina. You did not lose a penis.” I recommend that you practice this in front of a mirror before first use!
Another cognitive milestone concerns what sorts of things can disappear down the drain. This manifests as a sudden fear in toddlers of the swirling water going down the drain in the tub “surely capable of sweeping me with it.” This is another good reason for (dry) potty chairs rather than inserts over a watery abyss. Taking apart the toilet and a trip to the basement to see the pipes can suffice for some kids. But for many, a dramatic retelling of the story of the “Poop Party” under the house helps. You know! When you poop your poops into the toilet, they are happy because they get to go to the Poop Party under the house! (Turning to the child) Your poops (in pants or diaper) are sad because they don’t get to go. Then, (turning to the parents) in all earnestness ask: “Do your poops get to go to the Poop Party?” If you have done your stool refusal homework well, they should answer a resounding “Yes!”
Dr. Howard is assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to Frontline Medical News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .