Stubborn Toddler Poops Part I: The Behavioral Side

Two issues that often cause a great deal of frustration when potty training toddlers are poop and preschool pressure. I received this question from a grandparent a while back that well captures both issues.



We have been trying to potty train our 3 1/2 granddaughter.  She does pretty well with the pee, but bowel movements have not been successful. She says “the poopy doesn’t listen to her”. We can’t send her to preschool because she has to be fully potty trained.

She is the middle child and is very social and smart. We have tried rewards but nothing seems to work. Her brother didn’t train until he was close to 4. We can’t understand how she can be so smart in every area but seems to be resisting with this. Do you have any suggestions?

Grandma Lee


Dear Grandma Lee:

This is not an uncommon situation. Many children do just fine pooping in their diapers or Pull-Ups  but hit a huge wall when it comes to doing the exact same thing in the toilet. While trying to help the child move to the next step, a clash of wills typically develops pausing the entire process.

It’s important to keep in mind that your grand daughter only has two ways to control this situation. She can control her ability to poop and she can control when she poops. These factors also feed into the war of the wills.

In many ways, she’s telling you she wants to be left alone, which makes sense in many ways because this is her body and her body’s biological process. The good news is the majority of children become fully trained by the time they are 4 years of age if left to their own devices. You saw this with her brother. As long as she is pooping regularly and without discomfort, you don’t have to worry about other poop issues such as constipation so there is no reason to put too much pressure on her or intervene with medication. If, however, her poops are infrequent, hard, or very small, you may want to consult her pediatrician for a constipation evaluation since that will factor into her ability to poop comfortably and may be why “her poop won’t listen to her”.

It can be stressful when preschools place a requirement on needing to be fully potty trained before entering school and I can understand your frustration. There are many daycare/preschools now that understand the developmental range of potty training and do not have this strict a requirement and in fact help with the training process at the school for this very reason. This may be a good juncture for you to explore those sorts of preschools if you have that flexibility to do so. The more national chains would be the place to start and other parents in your community can give you suggestions of schools with similar developmental potty “guiding” philosophies as well.

Finally, potty training has little to do with intelligence and everything to do with biological development. Keep in mind that 3 year olds are very concrete and can not reason the way older children do. So, what you interpret as “buy advair diskus online” may be lack readiness. Part of the reason this situation is becoming stressful is your expectations are out of synch with your granddaughter’s developmental phase. “Smarts” have little to do with success.

So, your best bet right now is to back off. Allow her to continue to use Pull-ups and reward her when she recognizes she has a bowel movement and continue to encourage her to use the potty but let this be on her time frame and not yours. I view this is as “potty guiding”. I’ve always felt it a misnomer to call this potty “training”!

If at any time in the process, you have any concerns about her ability to have a bowel movement even in a Pull up, consult her pediatrician for advice on stool softeners. In the meantime, keep her diet high in fluids, fruits and vegetables and watch binding foods like bananas to help keep the stools soft and regular.

Dr. Gwenn



I have partnered with Pull-Ups® to serve as a Pull-Ups® Potty Training Partner. I have been compensated for my time commitment to the program, which includes writing articles for, offering tips and advice on the Pull-Ups® Facebook page. However, my opinions are entirely my own and I have not been paid to publish positive comments or endorse the product.