My 20-month-old daughter is holding on and avoiding going to the toilet

She seems to be getting obsessed, and distressed, about pees and poos

Question: I'm a bit worried about my 20-month-old daughter and her toilet-training. In the last week, she has just become aware (yet obsessive) of pee pee and poo poo. She holds it when we're out and when she's pooping she sneaks down to the bathroom for some privacy and comes back to tell me she's got poo poo. We've gotten the potty in place; she's sat on it and enjoyed that it's there but when asked if she wants to use the potty she says no.

What has worried me most is what happened yesterday – we were travelling back from holiday on a flight and she literally held her pee for 10 hours.  I was so worried. She kept saying pee pee and I tried everything to make it fun to pee in her nappy and sit on the toilet with mommy, singing songs etc (like we always do at home or when out) but she held on.

When we got to our home after the long day travelling, her tummy was so swollen – we tried tickling her etc but when we put her feet on the cold tiled floor I think that finally made her go. She cried when she finally did a pee pee and kept saying "hot" (there's no kidney infection by the way – she's just aware that it's warm). 

I just feel she's so young and this has literally come from nowhere. I feel like she's actually getting distressed.


She suddenly hates her changing unit too so we switched her over to pull-ups which she loves, but since then she hates the idea of her pull-ups being changed.

I don't want her to think it's a big issue so just I'm wondering what you would advise – should I just whip off the nappy and let her go free and see if she manages the final step of toilet-training?

Answer: One of the myths about toilet-training is that children can be toilet-trained before the age of two years, when this is almost never the case. Many children are not ready to be fully toilet-trained until around their third birthday, or even older. Indeed, while many parents report their children are toilet-trained at younger ages, often this is not 'full' toilet-training and these children are prone to having 'accidents' and setbacks when they are older. In addition, children who are trained older, when they are more developmentally mature, are likely to be toilet-trained more easily, in a shorter time period and without relapses.

The problem with early toilet training

Early toilet-training can cause a lot of problems for toddlers. As the toilet training puts them under pressure to hold and constrain their weeing and pooing before they have full control of these bodily processes, these children can get into inappropriate patterns of ‘holding’ and not releasing even though they need to. This can lead to chronic constipation, daytime accidents and prolonged nighttime bed-wetting, as well as many other problems. In addition, the pressure from parents to wee in a potty or a toilet can cause resistance from the child and create an unnecessary toddler battle between parent and child about who is control (when the truth is that neither has full control of when their toddler does a wee or poo!).

Up to the age two years, babies and toddlers generally need to experience complete unconstrained weeing and pooing so as to keep healthy bladder and bowel function. They need to be able to wee and poo whenever they want without getting into a pattern of holding and waiting! This is why nappies are so helpful as it means young toddlers never have to wait

Taking the pressure off

With your own daughter, I would suggest taking a step back and taking all the pressure off her about weeing and pooing. Though well-intentioned, even the fun games, songs and conversation about weeing and pooing might be drawing too much attention to the process and making it into a big issue. Talking about the potty and asking her to use it might be inadvertently putting her under pressure and might increase her resistance. For this reason, it might be best to take a complete break from toilet-training and raising the subject with her. Let her wear pull-ups or what is most comfortable for her, and just follow her lead and watch things evolve at her own pace.

Starting toilet-training

Toilet-training is best done as a gradual process that is child-centred, going at your toddler’s pace. The first stage in the process is your toddler becoming aware of their bodily processes and when they make wees and poos. It sounds like your daughter is at this stage, whereby she is becoming really aware of her wees and wants to tell you about it. When this happens, you just listen and comment without making a big deal and certainly not pushing her to the next stage. This might mean you say, ‘oh yes, you did a wee that is great’ but don’t then ask her to use the potty etc.

It is also interesting that she has a ritual of ‘sneaking off’ to do a poo in her nappy in private. This is very common and a sign that she is gaining awareness of the process of how she does a poo. Crucially, it is giving you a clue about how she needs time, space and not too much fuss to do one! I would suggest you simply support her continuing this ritual without making a big deal of it and wait until she is ready to move to the next stage of doing it in the potty.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He has published 14 books, including 'Positive Parenting: Bringing up responsible, well-behaved and happy children'. He will deliver a number of parenting workshops in Dublin, Cork and Galway in October and November. See for details