When Potty Training Stalls or Goes Backward

Here's what to do when it feels like they're stuck in diapers

Customize your approach and see results

Every child is unique—and so is their potty training experience! Some kids drag out the diaper stage and others potty train themselves in a day.

To have a smoother potty training experience (for everyone, including you), it’s important to know which of the 4 Types of children you’re working with. Customizing your approach will make it easier for your child to potty train successfully.

This episode’s Parenting Practice

If you’re in the potty training phase, take a look at how you’re approaching the experience. Listen to this episode and use the tips and techniques for your specific Type of child. Enjoy more success in leaving diapers behind!

Transcript of podcast episode

Anne: I remember when my sister was potty training one of her sons and it was taking a lot longer than she had hoped for. And you were like, “He’s not going to be in diapers when he’s 12. Like, it will be over soon.” So, whether your child is starting when they’re just barely turning two or even when they’re five, it can be a positive experience when you use these tips and methods.

Carol: Welcome to The Child Whisperer Podcast. I’m your host, Carol Tuttle, author of the bestselling parenting book, The Child Whisperer. I’m with my co-host, Anne Tuttle Brown.

A common post in “The Child Whisperer” Facebook group is, “I’m potty training my child and it’s going backwards. We were doing so well.” I know that’s really frustrating for a parent because you’re like, “We’re done with diapers.”

Anne: Or you’re like, “My child’s three, four, maybe even almost five…”

Carol: And we’re still having accidents.

Anne: “…and we’re still dealing with this.”

Carol: Bed-wetting at night, accidents during the day. I think the first consideration is, what timeframe did you set up for yourself?

Anne: Reading through a lot of the comments in the posts, many parents were like, “I finally just had to let go.” You have to let the child take the lead to show you when they are ready, and then, how long it’s going to take. I had two very different experiences with my Type 2 son and my Type 3 daughter. It’s been fun to read the stories shared in the Child Whisper group. It always goes back to Type. It’s true. This experience will express very true to Type. So, we’re going to share the tendencies for each Type when it comes to potty training and some really great tips to make it a more enjoyable experience for both you as the parent and the child. So, Type 1 is the fun-loving child. So, fun-loving. Let’s make it a light, fun experience. They are also random, lighthearted, playful. It’s going to be a more connect-disconnect experience. It might be like, “We’ve reached it. We’ve done it. You’re potty trained.” And, then the next day there are accidents. So it’s going to be more random. Just allow a little bit more time for that to be the experience.

Carol: In “The Child Whisperer” book, I theme all of these different developmental and behavioral experiences. The potty training experience for the Type 1 child is titled “Occasional Accidents.” You need to recognize that’s most likely going to be the experience. So, don’t get frustrated. Work with them rather than trying to prevent them.

Anne: A way that you can work with them is by turning potty training into a game. The number one goal for a parent is just getting your child on the toilet. Realize that these are patterns that need to happen. It’s going to happen every day, multiple times a day. So, how can you make that experience more fun to go into the bathroom? Do you get a toilet seat cover sticker with a unicorn on it or put some fancy bathroom spray that they can spray after. I even heard someone that put some cheerios in the toilet and see if they can pee on them. Get some food coloring and color the water. There are so many simple ways to make it fun, light and maybe a little bit crazy.

Sometimes, as a parent, you think, “Oh, do I have to really make everything into a game? Just do it because we need things to get done.” But every time I go into playful mode, I get better results with my kids, and they’re not even Type 1. So, this will definitely work for Type 1. Keep it light and get really excited when they’re doing it. A lot of times in potty training, there are sticker rewards or candy rewards; I think just the excitement alone can do a lot for a Type 1. Clap your hands. Call a friend. Dance to that potty song. Make it an exciting experience!

Carol: Get a potty seat that’s painted like a unicorn. The minute you make it serious, they’re going to pull away. They’re actually going to have more accidents. They feel that heaviness, and they’re stressed by that. When an accident occurs, it’s best to meet it with, “That’s okay. What can we learn from this?”

Anne: I think you can even ask them questions and let them share what happened and what can we do better next time. Learn from it. What were the scenarios?

Carol: I found that Type when children aren’t as motivated by feeling like, especially with the potty training experience, this is a developmental experience. It’s not like you’re right or wrong. It’s part of learning how your body functions and working with it, creating new neural pathways. So, enforcing punishment for accidents is a very heavy, serious experience. It’s going to make it even more challenging in my opinion.

Anne: I think that’s a good point, that punishment for the accidents. You’ve got to tread lightly with that one. You’re like, “Why did you do that?” Your child’s body is growing and learning how to, you know…

Carol: This is a good reminder. We have a wake surfing boat or water-skiing or something that takes a lot of repetition to learn. It would be similar to putting you as the adult in the water. And I’m going to be in the boat and say, “Why do you keep falling? Why don’t you just get up, you know? It’s not that hard. I can do it. Why can’t you?” Because I’ve done it longer. So, you just have to remember they’re learning new patterns. Their brain is getting new synapses, and you need to have a patient approach.

Anne: You can still be firm and keep moving forward as a parent. Like if your child has shown the signals like they’re ready and they’re showing progress. We had someone share in the Child Whisperer group that Day One was going great, but then Day Two, she had two accidents. The day ended in tears with her daughter begging for her diaper to be back on. As a parent, where are you at with that? “Did we jump in too soon or are you feeling good about it? Light about it?” No, she just needs more encouragement, more direction, and that’s kind of the balance you have to weigh. Is this moving forward? So, it just comes down to like they get distracted, and so, making it a fun experience that they can readily engage in and look forward to, I think will make it go by faster.

Carol: For the Type 2 child, I refer to it as a methodical experience in “The Child Whisperer” book.

Anne: I definitely relate to that experience with my Type 2 son. It was a much longer, elongated experience than with my Type 3 daughter. At about two and a half, I bought a little potty and introduced it to him. I started talking to him a lot about it. I had to hold myself back from being like, “Come on. Let’s just do it.” I’d give a lot of like hints. I’d bring it into a lot of conversations. Even like he would say, “Those wipes are cold,” when he was wearing diapers. I would respond, “When you use the potty, you can use warm toilet paper,” because he identified with…like it was uncomfortable for him. Try to relate like, “This can be a comfortable experience.” We went out and bought underwear before he ever really was ready to wear it, and it kind of just was sticking around there. I would try and have him go a few times a week on the potty. I was like, “Come on. Let’s make this happen. Like we’ve been at this six, seven, eight months now.” And, then one day like he was…like I said, it was maybe a couple times a week he was doing it.

Carol: You weren’t conveying that to him were you, the [crosstalk 00:07:55]?

Anne: No. In my mind, I was like, “Okay.” I would definitely talk about it a lot. We would get books from the library. We would watch TV shows about it, and we would talk about it.

Carol: Would he ever bring it up or ask to use the toilet?

Anne: Yeah. He was really excited right off the bat because it was like he’s a big boy now, you know, and so and then I think he was like, “Wait, I have to do this like five times a day? Go sit on the toilet? I thought it was just like a one-time thing.” And so, it was creating the habits, and like him just being like, “Oh, it’s just easier to go in my diaper.” So, one day, it just opened up because he was really liking gum. We had bought some at the grocery store. His nana gives him gum, and so I just took that as an opportunity. He kept asking for gum, and I was like, “Oh, I could use this.” And so I said, “You can have gum when you go on the potty, and you use the potty.”

So, it became the potty treat. It really clicked with him. That was the motivation that he needed. We had him still in diapers, like taking the diaper off, going potty. I encouraged him to put on his underwear, and he was like, “No, I don’t like the way it feels on me.” That was interesting to me because as a Type 2, he would definitely…it’s something different. You know, he wouldn’t…he never liked putting the underwear on. So, I said, “If you just wear it for 10 minutes, then I’ll give you a potty treat,” just to give him some time to get used to it. And, that’s all it took. And he was like…oh, he liked it. He got used to it, got more familiar.

Carol: The different was uncomfortable.

Anne: It’s funny because after that he did really well. He had a few accidents, but he was definitely more clued in. Every hour I just had him go sit on the toilet. Every time before we left somewhere, every time before naps. Just being consistent with the timing of it. Then my husband, after he was doing really well, said, “Wow, that was a breeze. I feel like he potty trained in like three days.” And I’m like, “I have been at this for like 10 months now!”

Carol: Being all proud. Yeah, Sam just potty-trained like overnight.

Anne: I guess that’s a good sign for me that I really did just kind of like bring it, you know. Within my mind, I was like, “Come on,” but I was always reminded to just like let it happen, let him take the lead.

Carol: And has he had any accidents since?

Anne: In the beginning, he has, but no, not for like the last three months. He’s been doing really well.

Carol: And then he wears a diaper at night still?

Anne: The pull-ups, but he does really well not going. He doesn’t wake up to go to the bathroom either. My Type 3 daughter graduated to the adult potty pretty quickly. My son still likes a small potty. That’s one of the tips on thechildwhisperer.com, the cheat sheet, for potty training. It says, “Don’t make these kids climb up on the toilet unless they want to. Get a child-size potty seat.” He always prefers to use his small potty. It’s more comfortable. I think he’s more familiar with it.

Carol: It’s less risky. They’re not going to make a mistake, you know. They’re very aware of those details. In the book, it says, “If potty training your Type 2 child feels like it’s taking too long, this is an indication that something in the experience is not comfortable for your child,” which you were able to identify several things along the way.” And then, make a plan with them so that, like the plan of, “We’re going to go buy the underwear” and planning for the time when you potty train, that methodical, making it longer, that doesn’t mean you do it all in like three days. “We’re getting the underwear. Now you’ve got the potty seat. Okay, now here we’re doing this.” You’re warming them up to it because the more familiar a Type 2 child is with a new experience, the more comfortable and eager they are to pursue it.

Anne: We have a great testimonial that goes right along with that. A mom in the Child Whisper group shared, “My daughter would not be potty trained today if it weren’t for the information in the “The Child Whisperer” book. I had tried potty training her three previous times. The last time, I finally, bought her soft toilet paper.” She’s a Type 2. “A nice smelling soap to wash her hands with, and most of all, I went with her into the bathroom every time she needed to go so I could give her assurance and be with her.” That’s a big one that we haven’t mentioned yet.

Carol: Yeah. Reassurance.

Anne: “I made sure to leave my cell phone behind and be with her 100%.” That’s great.

Carol: Good for that mom.

Anne: And she says, “It was a very special experience and amazing to see how much she trusted me and how important it was to her that I was there for that. I didn’t need any of that as a child, and neither did my previous two children. So, it was amazing to recognize what she needed and to be there for her in those moments.” That’s a fun testimonial to read that. These tips will springboard your own ideas and will give you the success that you’re seeking in potty training.

Carol: Time to take a short break. Don’t worry. We’ll be right back after this.

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Anne: Okay, so let’s move to the opposite end of the spectrum, the Type 3. They’re the more determined child. They move swiftly. My Type 3 daughter potty trained at 26 months. I remember her standing in her diaper and was so frustrated. She yanked it off and said, “I don’t like this.” I thought, “Maybe you’re ready to potty train.” It felt a little bit early to me, but, that’s my experience with her. She takes charge, you know. I had talked to a friend who had suggested the three-day potty method, and so I stayed home for three days.

We got like five different little child potties from IKEA, put them all over the house, had her just run around naked, and just went for it. We watched potty shows. We read books. We made up a song. We had big celebrations. Every time she went, we made it a really big deal. She potty trained and had like two accidents. That’s like the one end of the spectrum, “Go big. Get it done fast.” There’s the other end where I think it can be the Type 3 is, you know, the holding their own. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to go to the potty again because they’re busy doing something else. They’re just avoiding that altogether.

Carol: In “The Child Whisperer” book, I identify the Type 3 child’s potty training experiences as erratic success because they’re busy, and it’s sort of a bother. I mean, I still deal with this like, “I gotta take time to go to the bathroom.” And they’re going to be kind of on and off with it for a little bit, kind of go big or nothing. So, focus on the results quality of the experience so that they’re acknowledged for the results of the successes they have. Then be willing to be direct with them and not ask them if they need to go to the potty. It’ll work better with the Type 3 child. If you say, “It’s time to go to the potty. Let’s go.” Then you make it happen so that they’ll establish that own conversation with themselves. It’s time to go to the potty. Let’s go. I mean, I used to tell myself that.

Anne: [crosstalk 00;15:29] question in their mind. [crosstalk 00:15:29]

Carol: Yeah. Should I go potty or not? Time to go to the bathroom. Let’s go.

Anne: Time to go potty, Carol. The communicating directly what you expect, what they need to do, and then be really clear with them and like helping them move forward. Focusing less on the accidents and use a lot of, “You did it.” That’s what I did with my daughter. I didn’t want to have like a jelly bean every time she went. So, I try and I definitely use the gum method with my Type 2 at the right moment. But, with Katie, I thought, “Let’s go down the road of just like a big celebration.”

We Face-timed three people every time she went and ran around the house and just made a really big deal that she was doing something big. Rewards is a big thing for Type 3’s, so whatever you want to implement there, whether it’s sticker chart and they get a reward at the end or they have something and you can use that to bribe them or encourage them I think is a really great place to start and just acknowledge that they have like this quick, get it done nature, and potty can be fast. Let’s get in, let’s get out, let’s get it done, and good for you. You did it.

Carol: Let’s move to the Type 4 child. A more serious child, in “The Child Whisperer” book, I identify the potty training experience as a matter of fact, which is just being very reasonable with them and saying, “This is what we do now. This is how our bodies function. This is the toilet. Here’s the toilet paper,” you know, so that they are very aware of the process and that they understand from that point of reason that this is the next step in just my experience as a child and to have them ask questions if they have any to say, share their own opinion, how they feel about it. I’d even ask them, “How do you feel about this? Are you ready for this? Do you want to start this now?” They don’t like messes. So, that’s one of the advantages. So, when they start to notice a messy diaper, they are not comfortable with it. They don’t like being, feeling the mess.

Anne: They might even be coming to you at a young age asking you to change their diaper right away. You might point out, “If you’d go in the toilet we can flush it all away.” I did with my Type 2 son was like, “Where’s the opportunity to talk about his connection to the toilet?” And with a Type 4, it’s like painting that picture early and showing them, “That next step is coming, and this is how it will look for you,” being really clear from the beginning I think like, so from day one they know the bigger picture.

Someday, I will be using the toilet, and it doesn’t have to happen today, but it will be happening. We have a story from the mother of a Type 4 child that said it wasn’t until age four that her son was finally totally potty trained. He’d pee in the toilet but never poop. Tears and stress unless he had a diaper, and she said, “I had to just let it go and stay neutral and gently encouraged but never pushed.” You shared a thought before we started recording that because Type 4s don’t like a mess that they get nervous about going to poop in the potty.

Carol: Yeah. It’s a little intimidating to poop in the toilet when they’re feeling responsible for the mess. It’s a little overwhelming, so they’ll avoid it. Another consideration that’s very, very important in this experience is to keep their experience private. Don’t praise them at the dinner table in front of everybody. Don’t let them hear you talking about how they are successful or not quite so successful in potty training with other parents or other mothers. That’s just humiliating to them. Even at this young age, they feel like it’s a very private matter, and they want to keep it private. So, just make sure that those conversations are not entered into.

Anne: Be respectful about their experience. So, the same mom went on to share that when her son turned four, she simply told him that four-year-olds don’t wear diapers, and for some reason, the age thing was concrete for him, and it clicked. I think that goes to what you had said before, just being really matter of fact about it and using that to her advantage. Like in the world of potty training, like four-year-olds move to this next phase. And he was like, “Okay.”

And she said on the plus side, “I never, never, never had to clean up pee or poop. It was a hundred percent transition since he was so much older.” I remember when my sister was potty training one of her sons and it was taking a lot longer than she had hoped for. And you were like, “He’s not going to be in diapers when he’s 12. Like it will be over soon.” So, whether your child is starting when they’re just barely turning two or even when they’re five like it can be a positive experience when you use these tips and methods.

Carol: The thing that you’re challenged by in the time which you live because when I think back do I have any really vivid recollections of the four of you potty training and I think no, it’s just something you went through and did. It wasn’t like it needed to look a certain way or nothing stands out to say, “Yeah, that was overwhelming.” I didn’t have social media to compare.

Anne: Or even just the internet. There’s so many articles and books and blogs about like what it should look like or the timeline involved.

Carol: It was in a lot of ways that made it a little easier in these different transitions because you just didn’t have expectations because you weren’t learning things that would have set you up with different expectations. You are more readily able to accept what you experienced because it wasn’t being held against an expectation, and that’s where you get frustrated. You’re only frustrated in the potty training experience with your child if they’re giving you an experience that’s different than what you are expecting, and you want something else. And now you’re frustrated. So, you have to keep changing your expectations. That’s your role as a parent is to go, “You know what? This will happen, and it’s not playing out like I expected or like I wanted. So, I need to change that and support my child, so they don’t feel my stress and my anxiety and frustration because that’s just going to make it worse.”

Anne: Yeah. Definitely. Your Parenting Practice this week, if you’re in the potty training phase, is to take a look at how you’re approaching it and use these tips and techniques so you can have more success.

Carol: Thanks for listening. For more support, go to thechildwhisperer.com, or you can purchase the book, subscribe to our weekly Parenting Practice email, and find a transcription and audio of “The Child Whisperer Podcast.”

Anne: If you’re listening on iTunes, thank you for leaving a review. If you have a parenting question, please send it to [email protected].

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