Scared to wee! What to do if your child won’t use the potty or toilet

Posted in Preschool.

Mothercraft nurse and Feed Play Love Helpline expert Chris Minogue has lots of bright ideas about turning toileting terrors around. It can really help to slow things down and adopt a gentle approach, she explains.

“Major meltdown”

Diana’s mum to a three-year-old, and she turned to Helpline for advice on her “genuinely terrified” daughter’s response to the moment of truth on the potty or toilet – when the wee starts to flow.

“She knows when she wants to go and will tell us and will happily wear knickers, sit on the potty and toilet,” Diana told Helpline, “but when it actually comes to doing a wee, she freaks out.”

“We have managed to get her to do it once or twice, but had a major meltdown just before and when she was doing it she was genuinely terrified.”

An understandably overwhelmed Diana says she’s tried every trick in the book to get her daughter to relax and use the potty, and now she feels like she’s losing her mum mind.

“I’ve tried books that she enjoys reading, cartoon, videos, bubbles when she’s on the toilet, sticker chart, library … but she won’t do anything.”

It’s a position lots of parents find themselves in, but thankfully a steady, compassionate approach can help turn things around. 

Be kind, rewind

Nurse Chris empathised with Diana and her daughter’s struggle, advising the pair to hit the rewind button for now.

“You’ve done all the right things. You know, she’s three, she’s got the language, she’s understanding the concept of underwear and going into the toilet,” Chris confirmed, suggesting taking a few steps back and then implementing a gradual approach to using the potty might be the best approach.

“At this point, where she’s already got herself worked up about the actual doing the wee, I think we have to take a little step back,” Chris said.

“So, I’d probably go back to pull-ups for a week or two and I would say to her ‘look you know this is becoming too stressful. There are lots of tears. Let’s go back to pull-ups for a little bit and then we’ll go back to toilet training.'”

toddler sitting on the potty

Genuine fears

Chris explained that sometimes kids are worried about being up high on the toilet, or even falling off.

“From the information we’ve got, it’s when she physically does the wee that the anxiety occurs,” Chris noted. “Sometimes [it feels] better if they’re sitting on a little potty because the distance between where they are doing the wee and it falling is much shorter [than balancing on the toilet].”

“So when you make the choice to go back to toilet training her, I would use the potty first and maybe use the potty for a week or two before you introduce the big toilet – and then go to the big toilet. You may even have to retrain her by ‘toilet timing’ her with pull-ups on, and then move on to toilet training.”

Start with ‘toilet timing’

“Toilet timing is what I do before I toilet train,” Chris explains. “Because if you think about little people, if you just go ‘today you’re wearing nappies and tomorrow you’re wearing underpants’, that’s a big call. Not only that – you need to sit on a toilet to do a wee!”

It’s a lot for small children to grasp, and not surprising that they may react with horror or outright refusal. Chris says adding a ‘toilet time’ transition between nappies and full-blown toilet training helps kids learn to use the potty or toilet much more successfully. Toilet time is led by a parent or carer, who suggests opportunities for the child to use the potty or toilet.

“So what we have to do is train the child to understand what their body is doing. So to do that, I usually put pull-ups on them just in case we have an accident,” Chris explains.

“For about a week or two I might say ‘we’re going to the park, would you like to try for a wee in the toilet before we go?’ And then maybe after lunch and then it might be after their nap, before they have a bath and before they go to bed. What you’re looking for is that they’re independently and easily doing about two to three wees a day.”

boy on potty

Move on to ‘toilet training’

After ‘toilet timing’ comes a new phase, and with it a more child-led approach to using the toilet, Chris says.

Next, I move to ‘toilet training’. So now we’re asking the child to tell us. So we say ‘you’ve got your underwear on, there’s the toilet – or the potty – and you just tell Mummy if you need some help to go to the toilet.'”

Allowing plenty of time to get used to wearing undies and using the potty or toilet is vital.

“We have to be really patient and have to be sort of home-based. If they are doing a ‘wee-wee dance’ where they jiggle from foot to foot … I say, ‘do you want me to come and take you to the toilet?’ or ‘do you want to go to the toilet?’ If they say ‘no’, you have to actually accept it because they have to put the two things together.”


Gently does it

Chris hopes parents won’t bow to external pressures when it comes to this important phase in their child’s development. Letting your child set the pace – and being gentle – is key.

“It needs to be rhythmic because otherwise, they build a fear about going into the toilet. And sometimes we just have to take a break. Quite literally. It doesn’t matter if she’s three. Don’t get hooked in on what people think she should be doing.”

She notes that it’s okay – and in fact, sanity-saving – to say, “We just have to take a break here and go back a step, take a little moment, and then move forward with a plan.”

Seems like brilliant advice to us! Thank you, Chris! 

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