May 26

Potty Training Challenge: Child Doesn’t Initiate

Potty Training Challenge: This series of blogs will cover some common challenges that parents run into with potty training, such as withholding bowel movements or urine for long periods of time, or a child that does not initiate potty visits (only going on a parent’s suggestion).


Potty Training Challenge #2: The Child Doesn’t Initiate

pottywhiz.comSo you’ve been potty training for a little while, and things are going pretty well.  Your child uses the potty regularly and successfully.  She said goodbye to diapers and has a drawer full of princess and Dora underwear that she loves and tries to keep dry.  A few accidents here and there are expected for most children, even if your little trainee has been using the potty for a few weeks or more.  You used rewards for the first couple of weeks but have now phased them out and she didn’t seem to mind.

You only have one problem: she goes when you tell her, but she never really initiates on her own.

Potty training is not completed until the child is recognizing the signals their own body is providing and getting to the potty without a parent being the “trigger”.

An expert view from Dr. Barton D. Schmitt in Contemporary Pediatrics, March 2004:

Toilet training can be considered completed when a child uses the toilet or potty on his own with no reminders from his parents.


It’s normal to depend on reminders and parental prompting early in the process, but at some point you need to let your child be in control.  Some children turn potty training into a battleground because they want that control early on, while others are happy to go to the potty when you tell them.   Personality and temperament can play an important role here.

Here are some common reasons that your child might not be able to initiate.

A) Your Potty Training Methodpotty training countdown

This is one area where your potty training method can be playing a role.  Did you use a potty training schedule, where you put your son or daughter on the potty every 30, 60, 90 minutes?  Did you try the timer method, where you set a timer and if they don’t go you set it again for half the time, and so on?  Did you hang out in the bathroom with your child on the potty for 30 minutes at a time, reading books and blowing bubbles?  These types of training methods don’t teach the child that they are supposed to be listening for their body to tell them when it’s time to visit the potty.  I would argue that the parent is more trained than the child.  These methods tell the child that YOU (or the timer) are in charge of potty time, and you are in charge of their body.

Some children will naturally progress from here, and start initiating on their own relatively easily.  Others will need some help.  I actually prefer a training approach that doesn’t start out this way at all, because then you don’t have to “undo” the problem that it causes.

B) Over-scheduling

www.pottywhiz.comSome parents don’t use the methods described above but still find themselves with the same problem, but for a different reason.  You may have avoided scheduling your child’s potty visits and only provide prompts at normal times in your routine, such as before nap, before leaving the house, and before bath time.  Inherently there is nothing wrong with this; children need to learn that there are certain times in our routines that we all visit the bathroom.  But if your schedule is extremely busy with several outings a day, then you might be telling them to “try” or putting them on the potty 3-6 times per day.  Most children don’t use the potty more than that.

If your child is prompted to use the potty more regularly than necessary (i.e. before the bladder is full), then she will never know what a full bladder feels like.  She will also never get a chance to recognize the need to relieve herself, because you are always keeping her bladder half-empty.


C) Use of Diapers / Disposable Training Pants During Awake Times

Some children are doing great with potty training, but due to long road trips or daycare, they are put in diapers or pull-ups.  This won’t hurt your potty training progress with every child, but more often than not I’ve seen this cause a huge regression.  One type of regression might be constant frustrating accidents, where the child no longer cares to get to the potty in time.  Another type of regression is where the child still uses the potty pretty consistently but no longer communicates their needs, and you feel like you have to “put” him or her on the potty.

This is all very logical.  The child has gotten the message that the potty is optional.  If it’s okay to use a pull-up when on a long car ride, or at daycare, then quickly the child will learn that going wherever/whenever (whether in a pull-up or underwear) is much easier than listening to your body and using the potty like a big kid.

Prevent these issues by using cloth trainers, plastic underpants over underwear, piddle pads and a variety of other products to appease daycare or protect car seats in the event of accidents.  My favorite products can be found here.

What Can You Do?

The fix for this problem is relatively easy in theory: hand your child control of potty visits.  In reality, this can be a frustrating process, because in the short term it can result in more accidents than you were having before.  Sometimes it takes 2 steps backwards to go forward again on the right path.  Try not to view accidents as a sign of failure or lack of readiness.  In order to initiate, your child has to learn what a full bladder feels like, hold the right muscles, get to the potty in time, and then relieve herself.  These are several steps that require practice and patience.

Let the child know that she is in charge of her body.  Her amazing body gives her a signal before it’s time to pee or poop.  She has to listen to that signal, stop what she’s doing, and hustle to the potty before it’s too late.  If she has an accident, see if she can finish on the potty.  Be sure to let her know that it’s okay she had an accident, but she needs to help clean up the mess, and change into new clothes.  This isn’t a punishment, but a natural consequence (just like wiping up spilled milk is a natural consequence for knocking over a cup at the table).  Give her a hug and let her know that she can try again next time.

You may find that a full bladder leads to a full release / full accident several times.  When the bladder is very full and the muscles release, it can be hard to stop it.  As infants, our children peed in small amounts and very often, never holding for long periods and then releasing.  Listening to the body’s signals was not part of the process, so this is all new and requires complex workings of several muscles and the brain.

It’s not the number of accidents that will determine if you’re on the right track – it’s the size of the accidents.  You want to see the accidents getting smaller and smaller, indicating that the child is controlling the flow and able to finish on the potty.  Once she is able to stop peeing and finish on the potty, the next step in muscle control is being able to prevent the accident and get to the potty in time.

When you’re working on training your child to be the initiator, I recommend limiting “routine” potty vists to no more than 2-3 a day (e.g. before bed, before going out, etc).

This can be a quick fix for some families and be a long journey for others.  Once you conquer this hurdle your child will be officially potty trained!



1 ping

Skip to comment form

  1. Alesha

    So my daughter is not initiating sitting and GOING on the potty. She will sit, get up, move the potty, then go on the floor, or just sit on her potty and not go. I did the “introduction stage” with it, she is no longer interested in playing with the potty. I use cloth, so I have naked hours during the day and remind her….she just goes all over the house, I have tried moving the potty to where she goes. Nothing seems to be working! I feel like I am just setting her back, making her frustrated. The instant I put that diaper on she is drenched. She won’t keep her potty trainers on for longer then 2 seconds, she knows how to pull down her potty. The only thing I am not doing that I see on this website, is emphasizing “wet” vs. “dry”. I am doing this first thing in the morning. She 2 years and 3 months now so words are easy. It seems like She knows what to do, she just doesn’t want to or won’t. I know I need a book, and I made a chart for stickers. But she isn’t motivated by treats or stickers, do you have any other ideas? I will keep the chart for me and my husband to keep track, maybe it will grow on her. I need help, seriously! I am so tired of washing cloth, and I feel I am missing the easy potty train stop.

    1. PW

      Hi Alesha, Thanks for stopping by my blog.

      Firstly, there isn’t really an “easy potty train stop”, so don’t be hard on yourself and feel like you’re missing something.

      Based on the behaviors you described, it sounds like it is critical for you to catch her mid-accident. The second she starts to pee, you need to startle her with an “OH NO! Pee goes in the potty. And take her hand and rush there there”.
      Practicing sitting on the potty doesn’t click for some kids. If she doesn’t have to go right now, then she’s not learning anything or making a connection between the feeling of needing to pee, and the requirement of getting to the potty. You are better off to stick to her like glue, wait for the accident to start, and then rush her to the potty. This is conditioning/training her on the connection. Some kids catch the point after a day, some several days. You have to be extremely consistent and patient. What you want is that you startle her into holding the remaining pee, and try to get her to finish on the potty. At first there may be nothing to finish in the potty, but praise her for trying. Later she might be able to stop mid-stream, hold, and release in the potty. Then the amount in the potty will get bigger and bigger.

      If she finishes her accident, because you are distracted with something else and don’t see it happening, then you’ve missed the critical learning opportunity.
      Also, trainers aren’t good for this since you can’t see the accident when it starts. Naked time, or thin colored underwear are best.

      The fact that she drenches a diaper when you put it on means she’s good at holding. Two thoughts: 1) releasing at the right time is actually a tougher skill to learn than holding, and it takes practice using the muscles, and 2) You’re using diapers which means she knows she has a backup plan… she doesn’t HAVE to use the potty. My usual advice is that you have to be IN or OUT… you can’t part time potty train and expect amazing success. Some kids can hold it all day and wait for their night diaper.

      I hope this helps. Good luck! Potty training is definitely not easy 🙂

      1. Alesha

        Thank you so much, this helps tons! I just read your reply to my husband also, so he will be on the same page. We’re both tired of washing, folding, and stuffing diapers. Looking forward to the new potty whiz stage.

  2. Rickie

    We have been PT “all undies” since July. My daughter (25 months) only goes a few times a day and I fear we have unknowingly ventured into the scheduled potty visits and have completely missed the boat on having her initiate. She is accident free all night, we routinely have her go in the morning, before and after nap and before bed. We quickly got to know our daughter’s “schedule” so we started having her go before snack and before dinner (she goes pee and poop at both of these times). Her only accidents are of course when her schedule differs from these routine trip and accidents happen with no initiation from her at all! I guess my next step is to find a few days where I try a completely “hands off” approach. I’m nervous about this and fear I will set her back. Do I initiate any routine visits or just completely start one morning and tell her she’s in charge? How do I have her clean up poopy undies? Do I have her change her own clothes, and also have her go get new fresh ones? Do I re-introduce rewards for initiating AND going? Are there any punitive measure or just brush off the accidents like it’s no big deal? Will this make her also feel like it’s no big deal to have an accident and not discourage them enough?
    Sorry, I’m so ready for her to be fully trained but I want to be sure when I do this that I am really doing it right this time!! Thank you SO much!

    1. PW

      Hi Rickie – thanks for visiting!
      This is a common problem, so you’re not alone! It’s one that we tend not to foresee.
      You are asking all the right questions. Here is what I would do:
      -when you figure out the right time for a few dedicated days of re-training, work backwards and giver her some notice that the time is coming. Maybe a week.
      -Start using phrases like “listen to your body”, and “keep your undies dry”, and “tell me when you have to go potty”. Tell her that mommy isn’t in charge of her body. Tell her that her body gives her a sign (a feeling) that it’s time to run to the potty, and she has to pay attention to catch the sign.
      -during the re-training period, stick close to her. If she starts to pee you want to notice quickly. Some find it easiest to have the child just in undies for this first day.
      -Know that she will miss her body’s signals, and have accidents. Take a deep breath and don’t think of it as a setback. It’s another step on the journey and it’s a critical element in her independence. Tell her it’s okay… She isn’t used to listening to her body and it takes time to get to the potty in time. The feeling of a full bladder is uncomfortable and strange and she may have full accidents, or just small leaks. If she has small leaks, stops, and then finishes on the potty, then you’ll know she has pretty good bladder control and hopefully this little boot camp period will pass quickly.
      -you can initiate in very limited circumstances, like before bedtime. Say “everyone pees before bed”. In the morning when she wakes up, you can ask if she has to go. When you can’t fully put her in control, I recommend providing choices. Upon waking in the morning: “Do you want to go potty right now, or after breakfast?”. Upon waking from nap: “Do you want to go potty right now, or after snack?” If you’re terrified of an accident while out at the grocery store, give her a choice: “Do you want to go potty before we leave, or when we get to the store?” Don’t make her go when she doesn’t want to… she’s supposed to be in charge. You’re trying to minimize accidents while also passing her some (instead of complete) control.
      -give her explicit instructions about HOW she’s supposed to tell you. Do you want her to yell “potty!”? Or run toward the bathroom and you’ll follow?
      -after an accident, ask her what she’ll do next time. My youngest used to say “run faster next time”, and it cracked me up every time
      -the hardest part is stopping while in the middle of playing in order to use the toilet. Some kids struggle with this for awhile when they are in the middle of their favorite activity.

      For some kids, this whole re-training process takes a day. For others it takes several days or longer. My fingers are crossed that it goes smoothly. It sounds like she’s a pro at using the potty on command, so this is the next important step.

      Good luck!

  3. Rickie

    Thank you so much for all of the advice!
    We started on Saturday and I gave her the choice right out of bed and she chose after breakfast ( I knew this was bad but let her) as she went to get an applesauce she had a full blown pee-pee accident on the kitchen floor. She changed herself and cleaned up the mess. We went to the grocery store and just before check out she said “mommy, potty”. I thought she’d be soaking but we got to the potty and she went! SO proud. We stopped at the bakery and she got a cookie 🙂
    She is getting better at pee-pee and has asked 5 times over the last two days and made it. She has also had a few full-blown pees, like when engulfed in play. We are running into some problems. She has yet to initiate poop. She’s gone poop on the potty regularly, her stools are soft, and she doesn’t seem afraid, she just tells me after she’s gone. She’s say “mommy, poopy” and I can see she’s already gone. This is harder because she can’t help as much in the clean-up and it is SO messy! Also, now that she is in control, she is using the control as of today. Twice she has told me “mommy, potty” and I get SO excited “Let’s go!” and then she says “no”. I’ll say, tell me when you need to go” and she’ll say “Mommy, Potty” and I’ll say “I’ll follow you” and she’s laugh and say “no”. I’m not sure what this is, I think she actually does have to go so do I then make her go, engage in this game, or ignore her? I made her go after the 3rd time and she peed. Do I then reward her or not since I was the one who pushed it?

    Thank you SO much! I think this is progress but it’s so hard to go back and I just need a little more advice and encouragement to press on! Thanks!!

  4. Rickie

    Any ideas? We are a week in and still struggling. We have completely regressed to not telling me at all and peeing and pooping in undies unless I catch the accident. She stays dry all night and holds a lot. Pooping is always in undies unless after nap or before bed. I’m really ready to go back to a set schedule with few accidents. Am I missing something?


  1. Potty Training Challenge: Daycare (Part 1) » Potty Whiz

    […] Potty Training Challenge: Child Doesn’t Initiate May 26, 2013 […]

Questions? Comments? Leave a Reply