When you have a baby, you basically sign up for 3 to 4 years of being responsible for their poop. Newborn blowouts, diaper changes in public bathrooms, the infamous “poopsplosions” when you’re already running late, and, of course (who could forget?!), potty training.
The point is there’s a lot of poop involved with raising a tiny human — way more than anybody tells you. But sometimes, your kid stops pooping entirely, and that’s somehow more upsetting.
Withholding stool — as it’s called in polite circles of society — is a thing many toddlers do at least once in their potty training years. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s easy or fun to deal with.
Here’s why your kid might be doing it and how you can help them get back to their regularly scheduled programming.
Before you panic, know that the most common reasons why your toddler has stopped pooping are pretty benign. Here are some common explanations:
- They’re constipated. If pushing out poop is difficult or painful because their stool is hard to pass, a child may try to avoid it.
- They’re scared. If your toddler had a bad experience with a bowel movement (i.e., they had one that was painful or hard to pass) or even a bathroom (like using a relative’s toilet that flushed really loudly), they can start thinking that all bowel movements will be painful or frightening. This causes them to resist any suggestion of going poop.
- They’re not confidently potty trained. Most kids don’t have much trouble peeing in the potty when they’re breaking their diaper habit, but pooping can be another story. A child who is potty trained but not totally on board may resist pooping in the potty. Instead, they may wait for you to put a diaper back on them so they can do their business.
- They’re asserting some independence. The minute your sweet little baby becomes a toddler, the power struggles begin. You want them to poop on the potty, so they’re just… not going to give you what you want. The longer this goes on, the harder it can be to break the habit.
- They have better things to do. Don’t we all? But seriously, some kids simply don’t want to take the time to stop and use the loo, especially if they’re super active or easily engaged in other activities. Pooping takes longer than peeing and deducts precious playtime out of your toddler’s busy schedule.
- They have sensory or anxiety issues. Your child may not like the feeling of pooping. This can happen for autistic kids or those with sensory processing disorder. The smell or appearance of poop can also be offensive to some highly sensitive kids. They might even have some anxiety associated with “letting go” of their stool — maybe they’ve felt rushed when having a bowel movement in the past, or been stressed out in some other way while in the bathroom.
Rarely, a medical condition can be the cause for a kid to stop pooping. Start out assuming your child’s poop probs are more psychological than physical, but understand that there may be an underlying reason for stool withholding. This might include:
- A gastrointestinal (GI) condition that causes chronic constipation. This could be celiac disease, Hirschsprung disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or even lactose intolerance.
- Fecal impaction. If your child is often constipated, they could end up with hardened poop lodged in their colon or rectum, making it impossible for them to go.
- Colonic inertia. Call it a lazy colon if you want, but when your GI system doesn’t efficiently move stool along its usual path, it can mess with your ability to go.
- Thyroid problems. Constipation is a common symptom of hypothyroidism, a condition in which you don’t make enough thyroid hormone.
- Anatomical issues. A malfunctioning part of your child’s anatomy, like a too-tight anal sphincter, for example, could make it physically difficult for their stool to pass. Similarly, pelvic floor dysfunction can also interfere with the body’s ability to bear down and pass bowel movements.
The more your child resists emptying their bowels, the more challenging it will be for them to start pooping easily again.
There may be mental and physical barriers. Not only will withholding poop cause hardening and constipation — making pooping difficult, time-consuming, and painful — but sitting down on the potty to poop will start to become a Whole Big Thing your toddler really, really won’t want to do.
If your child happens to have an underlying medical condition (remember, these are rare), it’s important to get to the root of the problem so it and its symptoms, like stool withholding, can be addressed.
But even if your child doesn’t have an underlying condition, you still want to get ahold of the issue. Holding in poop can cause:
- stomach pain and cramping
- urine or stool leakage
- abdominal distension
- bedwetting or urinary tract infections
Because stool withholding is common and can often be resolved at home, you don’t need to rush your child to the doctor just yet. Remedying the problem involves a combination of physical strategies (to soften their poop and relieve any constipation) and mental strategies (to help your child see that pooping is a positive thing).
Relax and be patient
This applies to you and your kid. The more you stress about them not pooping, the more stressed they’ll get — and stress doesn’t equal happy, healthy poops.
Whatever the reason for stool withholding, it probably won’t resolve overnight. It’s important to be patient while you wait for your child to get more comfortable.
Some parents have good luck getting their kids to poop after a nice, warm bath, or after using distraction tactics like reading a book together while they’re on the potty.
Check your ergonomics
If your child’s potty seat is too small or too large, if their feet don’t touch the floor or the top of a step stool, or if the toilet seat is loose and jiggly, they may not be comfortable or stable enough to bear down effectively for a bowel movement.
Don’t just tell your child that everyone poops — it’s true, but if you’re a toddler, you likely won’t care! Teach your child why everyone poops, along with how good it is for your body. Grab some kid-friendly books on anatomy and talk about how the food we eat is turned into poop.
Educating your child can demystify the process a little, make it seem less scary, and maybe even motivate them to take care of their body like a big kid.
Change their diet
If your kid subsists on chicken nuggets, fish crackers, and mac ‘n’ cheese like every other toddler on the planet, they’re more prone to constipation.
It’s not always easy, but if you can start working more fiber into their diet, their stools may become easier to pass. Think leafy green vegetables, raw fruit (but not all bananas!), and some whole grains. (Not all things labeled “whole grain” are good sources of fiber, but look for items that have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.)
Meanwhile, cut back a little on dairy and simple carbs like white bread.
Your kid can eat all the fiber you feed them, but if they’re not drinking enough water, it won’t help much — and can even make things worse.
Offer them lots of chances to drink water during the day. If they’re not a fan, try to hydrate them through food, such as soups, broths, and smoothies. Foods with high water content, like cucumbers and watermelon, count toward liquid intake, too.
If all else fails, give them their favorite juice diluted with water once or twice a day. Aim for no more than 4 to 6 ounces per day of pure juice. It’s not great to make a habit out of multiple glasses of juice every day, but your kid needs to poop. Priorities, right?
Give them lots of positive reinforcement
Make bathroom breaks a laid-back activity tied to lots of positive reinforcement. Invite your child to use the potty frequently “just to see” if anything happens. If it does, great! If not, no biggie. Praise them for trying, and consider rewarding them no matter what, rather than only if they produce something.
Speaking of rewards, different things motivate different kids. M&Ms, sticker charts, quality time — test out a few rewards until you find one that actually gets your child excited (or at least not combative) about sitting on the potty.
Model happy bathroom breaks
This one may not be for you, but kids do like to copy what their parents do — and seeing you have a positive experience in the bathroom can eliminate some of their fears. If you don’t mind letting your child watch you go, it could help normalize the behavior.
If you’ve tried all of these tactics and nothing’s done the trick, call your child’s pediatrician. They’ll want to examine your kiddo to make sure there are no obvious health issues or physical blockages preventing them from being able to poop.
They may recommend a stool softener or fiber supplement (maybe even both!) to get them going again. Making stool softer and easier to pass can go a long way toward helping your child overcome the physical and mental barriers to pooping regularly. But you shouldn’t give these to your child without consulting your doctor first for safety and dosing instructions.
If your pediatrician does think something else could be causing your child’s stool troubles, they’ll be able to refer you to a pediatric gastroenterologist or another specialist who can help.
Usually, withholding poop is caused by constipation. You can thank the typical toddler diet of carbs, carbs, and more carbs for that, or psychological obstacles like fears, anxieties, and power struggles.
Do what you can to make pooping a relaxing, stress-free experience. Don’t pressure your kiddo to poop in the toilet before they’re ready, and offer rewards, praise, and support as often as possible. Meanwhile, make sure they’re getting plenty of nutritious foods.
If they’re willing to poop in a diaper, but not in the toilet (even if they were pooping in the toilet before), let them have the diaper. You can even have them bring you the diaper and then help empty it into the toilet if they’re willing.
If those strategies don’t work or you think there’s something else going on, reach out to your child’s doctor for next steps.