Potty Training Pitfalls: Avoiding Toddler Constipation

Potty training your toddler is challenging enough. When you add constipation to the mix, it can seem impossible. A Henry Ford Health pediatrician offers expert tips.

The day has arrived: you’ve got the potty chair and you’ve got your child ready, to, well, go! Yet, while toilet training is a significant milestone in a child’s development, it comes with its fair share of challenges. One of these is toddler constipation. 

“Some kids are so averse to pooping on the potty they hold bowel movements which can cause chronic and sometimes severe constipation,” writes Dr. Stacy Leatherwood Cannon in a blog post on the Henry Ford Health website

In more severe cases toddler constipation can even cause hemorrhoids and anal fissures, or small tears. These painful complications may increase your child’s fears, further complicating the toilet training process.

Understanding and overcoming toddler constipation

In her Henry Ford Health blog post, Dr. Leatherwood Cannon notes that this common issue is often rooted in a child’s discomfort with the new process or confusion about how it works. “[Kids] are potty-averse because they’re used to doing business on the run (in a diaper) or they can’t wrap their minds around the concept,” she says.

Dr. Leatherwood Cannon recommends the following action steps you can take:

Increase fluid intake and physical activity. One of the best things you can do to help your child prevent constipation is to have them drink plenty of fluids. However, don’t overdo their milk intake. “Milk can be constipating for some kids,” cautions Dr. Leatherwood Cannon. 

Water is the best option, but incorporating a splash of fruit juice can also help soften stools without leading to constipation. 

Coupling adequate hydration with regular physical activity can help maintain regular bowel movements. “Exercise stimulates digestion,” says Dr Leatherwood Cannon. Simple activities like walking, playing outside or engaging in toddler-friendly exercises can make a significant difference. 

Offer your child a diet rich in fiber. Fruits like apples and pears, vegetables (preferably raw), and whole grains such as oats and barley can enhance digestive health. Fiber-rich foods ensure that food moves through the digestive tract at a steady pace, facilitating easier bowel movements. For fruits like apples, pears and peaches, keeping the skin on increases their effectiveness.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers several suggestions for fiber-rich foods to offset toddler constipation. For example, one cup of raw carrots, a half cup of kidney beans or one slice of whole wheat bread are kid-friendly options that help keep things moving. Experiment with different foods and combinations of foods to see what your child likes – and what works.

Some foods can make things worse, says Dr. Leatherwood Cannon. “Sugar and refined carbohydrates (like white breads, pasta and rice) are known toddler constipation culprits.” Even healthy foods like bananas can make it harder for kids to go.

Henry Ford Health Recipes

Create a supportive environment. Instead of framing toilet training in terms of success and failure, focus on gradual progress and celebrating small victories.

“A small non-food reward for pooping on the potty, such as stickers or the promise of a special outing typically boasts big payoffs,” says Dr. Leatherwood Cannon. This approach helps build your child’s confidence and reduces anxiety around pooping.

Plus, Dr. Leatherwood Cannon says you can’t celebrate too much when it comes to toddler potty success.

“No matter which tangible reward you choose, make sure to praise your child wildly when the deed is done. Call grandma and grandpa. Call daddy and mommy at work. Make it a big deal so that [your child] will want to repeat the process.”

Practical tips for easing the process: For toddlers already experiencing constipation, a small amount of petroleum jelly applied around the anus can ease discomfort and potentially stimulate a bowel movement. If your child suffers from fissures (cracks or tears in the skin in this delicate area), Dr. Leatherwood Cannon suggests using diaper cream to help the skin heal. 

Creating a comfortable and child-friendly bathroom environment with a potty seat adapter or a step stool, for instance, can make the physical act of using the toilet less daunting. 

Additionally, recognizing and responding to your child’s natural signals can help you figure out their bathroom needs. “Does she pause during an activity, make a funny face, walk to a different part of the room? If you notice these pre-pooping signals, you can rush your child to the toilet before the bowel movement occurs,” says Dr. Leatherwood Cannon.

Moving forward with compassion and understanding

If your child is still struggling or is experiencing pain, Dr. Leatherwood Cannon suggests consulting your pediatrician. Remember, every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Staying flexible and responsive to your child’s cues is key. With time and patience, you can help your child master the art of using the potty without problems. 

For more information and to find a doctor, visit henryford.com. Metro Parent also has many articles on children’s health and development.

Jenny Kales
Jenny Kales
Content editor Jenny Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years. A natural storyteller, she loves helping Metro Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with their audiences.

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