Withholding Bowel Movements After Potty Training – Why It Happens & What You Can Do About It

With this year being absurd to almost everyone we know, it feels natural to share that we’ve gone through some major changes in our lives this year. Changes normally impact us adults, so imagine their effect on our little humans. Needless to say, my daughter has had different reactions to all of these major changes (one of them being that we moved far away from home), and one of these reactions was a poop regression at 3 and a half years old. If you’re a parent whose had a similar situation, and are reading this, you would understand the guilt and shame I’ve been feeling. I found that potty training has been and is still the most difficult part of toddlerhood. Despite the fact that I am aware she will grow out of it, that I have nothing to be ashamed of or worry about, I can’t help it. This is an anxiety-inducing issue and being more informed about it and supported would be the only thing to help us get through it.

At around the ages of 18 months and 3 years, parents start thinking about potty training. By now, we all know that it is best for a child to lead us into their readiness and not rush them. To avoid a counter-reaction, patience and understanding are our most important tools to get through this phase. There are lots of tips for potty training and the process is far from being a short one. With time, you get there and you feel like you have climbed Mount Everest. Then, most of the time comes regression. It can be due to many factors, like sickness, changes in lifestyle, entering school, or simply your child is scared of the toilet. They are tiny and new to this world after all. Sometimes, their fear of pooping in the toilet leads them to withhold their stools. Many reasons are behind this and it can lead to constipation. There are solutions to avoid getting to that point, like not forcing them to use the toilet, make sure it is comfortable and feels safe, being flexible and allowing a diaper, watching for signs or time patterns, and have them ready to use the toilet. It is important to know that accidents frequently happen after potty training, but noticing withholding poop more than usual which can lead to constipation, has to be addressed early. We will take you through all of that so you can get through the phase of withholding bowel movements after potty training.

Potty training and regression

Potty training and regression

As we’ve established, potty training is no walk in the park. But there are many signs and steps to take that could make it a smoother process. When most parents decide to go with child-led potty training, these are the most common signs to look out for to check if they are ready:

  • Your toddler can easily walk and sit comfortably on the toilet
  • Your toddler shows interest and curiosity when it comes to toilet time
  • They can understand your guidelines and rules
  • You can easily predict his or her poop time and how many times they pee during the day (nighttime is a whole other story for me)
  • They can recognize they are about to go potty and voice it

When you see your toddler is ready to at least try potty training, then you can go ahead. Going through it without them being ready will only make it harder and lead them to associate potty training with anxiety. Which is one of the causes of withholding. We will get to it in a bit.

Once you feel your child is ready for potty training, you can start easing them into the process. This can look like:

  • Whenever they have to poop, lead them to the bathroom. Keeping them in their diaper but in the bathroom and then transitioning to the toilet is a good way to make it smoother.
  • Whenever they successfully pee or poop in the toilet, give them positive reinforcement. It can go a long way into making it enjoyable for them. Of course, never overdo it as they will feel over-pressured when they cannot seem to go through with it.
  • Whenever you feel there is fear behind going to the potty (as irrational as the fear can be to you), talk it out with them, reassure them and help them get through the anxiety. Sometimes, toddlers pick up on a silly joke someone made and associate it with a situation. My daughter was suddenly scared of going down the toilet once we flush it following a joke one of the kids made at school.

Making sure the above is taken care of will go a long way to avoid potty training becoming stressful and transforming into withholding bowel movements, leading to constipation. Which brings us to:


Before your child reaches the point where he withholds bowel movements after having been potty trained, there are some reasons behind regression to watch out for:

  1. Physical reasons behind regression: Urinary tract infections and constipation are the two most common physical causes of regression after potty training. Make sure your child is not experiencing any physical issue and check with your pediatrician before ruling it out. They might also be sick with the flu or feeling tired.
  2. Psychological reasons behind regression: When your child goes through changes or a stressful situation, they will most likely have a potty training regression. It can be something as basic as starting school or having a new baby brother or sister, or something big like parents getting divorced or the death of a loved one. Check your child’s emotions, fears, and anxieties, especially if they are going through changes. This will help you both get through that regression. Patience, always.
  3. Your child might just not be ready to let go of his or her diaper. At this stage, it is better to let go and try again a few weeks or months later.

Withholding bowel movements after potty training

Withholding bowel movements after potty training details

We have discussed potty training readiness signs and issues that could lead to regression. Sometimes, these can be dealt with easily and everyone can move on happily. But what if the reasons for regression lead to your child withholding bowel movements and refusing to poop, which in turn, leads to constipation?

Withholding stools due to fear, changes in routine, or even not wanting to poop outside the house, can become serious and lead to constipation. So what can parents do to make sure it doesn’t get serious? The first thing to do is to make sure we identify signs of constipation to be able to shift it or prevent it from getting worse. This article covers toddler constipation and gives us some signs to look out for:

  • Your child has difficulty passing stools, turns red, or cries whenever they poop. This means their poop is hard to pass.
  • Your child has less than 3 bowel passes in the space of 7 days.
  • The stools are pasty and have blood on the surface.
  • They complain of stomach pain and are scared of pooping because it is painful.

Physical and psychological issues are therefore behind your toddler withholding bowel movements after potty training.

Here is what you can do when your child refuses to poop

  1. The easiest solution. If your child refuses to poop in the toilet but is willing to do it in a diaper, then let them! They will grow out of it, I can guarantee it. Been there, done that. That’s when you realize you prefer them to poop anywhere but not to withhold it, am I right?
  2. If you still feel you cannot bring back the diaper, stay calm, explain, and comfort as much as you can.
  3. Try positive reinforcements. Don’t worry, these don’t count as bribing. It’s only to make a positive association with going potty in the toilet. A small toy they wanted or stickers, whatever makes them happy.
  4. Go back to the beginning. The methods you used before regression can work wonders once picked up again.
  5. Make sure you don’t get angry or punish them for withholding. This is a big no-no as it can be traumatizing for everyone.
  6. Stay very patient and do not force your child to poop at certain times. This will just block them and put too much pressure to poop on-demand, making it an even bigger issue.
  7. When you feel they need to poop but are withholding, try putting a diaper on or placing them on the toilet, and distract them with a funny and relaxing story. This could release the tension and help them relax and go through with it.
  8. Read books and watch videos about the importance of pooping.
  9. Add more fibers and vegetables to their diet to make stools softer and less irritating to pass.
  10. Make it easy for them to poop in the toilet. The toilet should be an appropriate height, there should be a stool for your child to go up there on their own, and the toilet seat should feel secure for them not to fall down in it. This can play a big role in diminishing their anxiety.
  11. Last but not least, always talk to your child. As many times as it takes, try to understand their fears and reasons behind withholding and talk it out as much as possible.


When should I start potty training my child, on average?

You can try starting potty training at around 18 months. But it is important to note that the average age is 20 months and that some kids won’t master it until they are 4 years old.

What is Encopresis and when to call the doctor?

Encopresis is the condition whereby an already potty trained child withholds their stools until they soil their clothes. It is diagnosed by:

  • liquid poop in their underwear without them being sick
  • pain when pooping or very hard stools
  • stomach pain
  • not eating due to pain
  • blood on the stools

Make sure you check with your doctor should withholding get out of control.


Potty training can be a very difficult time, and your child withholding bowel movements can make it even worse. Thankfully, there is information everywhere to make it easier and help every parent overcome this stage of their lives.

The main ingredients are patience and understanding. Remember it won’t last forever. Your child will grow out of it at one point, with your love and support.

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Lynn is a 30-something writer for 1happykiddo and mom of a 4 year-old little girl. When she’s not busy taking care of her daughter or writing, she likes to relax with a book, meditate and connect with loved ones. Oh, and cooking good food too!

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