“Help! My kid won’t poop in an unfamiliar public toilet!”

At Amazon: I Can't, I Won't, No Way!: A Book For Children Who Refuse to Poop (affiliate link)
At Amazon: I Can't, I Won't, No Way!: A Book For Children Who Refuse to Poop

The #1 problem with #2: public (and other unfamiliar) toilets.

Martha's plight echoed my own when my son was little:

My 4 year-old son has a terrible time going #2 in unfamiliar toilets. Normally, this isn’t a big deal when we’re close to home but we recently went on a 5-day camping trip and he had a really rough time. Despite many, many attempts, he could not bear to poop in the campground bathrooms (pee was not a problem though). He ended up not pooping for 3 days and was pretty uncomfortable.

Any advice out there for how to help a younger kid relax on a strange toilet in an unfamiliar place? I used the toilet myself, I sang songs, I told him stories to distract him, I changed his position on the toilet, I took him when the stalls were empty, and I even tried to bribe him with marshmallows. I finally gave up and figured his body would eventually win out, but I’d love to know if there are any tricks for helping potty-trained kids get comfortable with pooping in public.

Before I share my suggestions, I just have to pause for a moment to acknowledge what that camping trip must have been like. Sigh.

We were in the same position when my son was a preschooler, and every outing was fraught with tension because of it. The upside (which I am discovering this very moment) is that I have a list of detailed tips for handling the scared-to-poop situation. They only worked some of the time (and there was still a lot of fear and crying) but they did help a lot.

What to do if your kid is afraid of public toilets

1. Take pictures.

Believe it or not, we took camera phone snapshots of unfamiliar toilets and showed them to my son so he could "preview" them. My camera didn't have video at the time, but that would have helped even more.

2. Flush to assess noise level.

I flushed the toilet to find out how loud and "scary" the noise was (that was a big issue for him, too). Man, there's a lot of variation among toilets.

3. Cover the hole.

I threw a piece of toilet paper in the bowl to cover the water/hole. For some reason, not sitting over a swirling vortex of death made him feel calmer.

4. Cover the automatic flush sensor.

I draped toilet paper over the autoflush senser so he didn't get an unexpected surprise while sitting on the toilet. (More discussion on disabling automatic flush toilets.)

5. Flush after he's out of the stall.

If I managed to get him to poop, I let him leave the stall before I flushed the toilet for him.

This phase felt like it lasted forever, but it didn't. He eventually grew out of his fear (and many others). But at the time it was so hard for us to help him through each situation, and to be patient with him as he wrestled with his fear. Isn't patience always the hardest part?

Hopefully it will help both parents and kids to know they are not alone. Lots of kids got through this fear — so many there's a picture book for kids about being scared to poop.

I also think it's important to realize that your kid doesn't want to feel this way. Many older relatives chided me for "babying" my son during this period — that I needed to just "get tougher" with him and stop accomodating his fear. But I found that just made the problem a lot worse and, I suspect, would have drawn the whole phase out much longer.

It would have been a problem had we let his fear keep us from exploring the world. As in: "let's stay home so we don't have to deal with the toilet issue." Repeated, varied exposure is the key to getting over phobias…but the overall goal was for him to feel safe on his own, not to feel bullied out of his fear.

Parenthackers: any tips to improve on this list? Helpful advice to share?


  1. Cameron says

    My daughter’s three, and while it’s not a fear, per se, she’s not crazy about public toilets. I carry a fold-up potty seat that she picked (purple with fairies) that fits in a quart ziploc so at least that part’s familiar. I try to choose stalls with grab bars (handicapped-style), have a fidget toy, and used to do small rewards afterward.

  2. Kendra says

    I don’t know if it has come up before, but I got a terrific tip from another mom in a public restroom. During a very long drive from Minnesota to Florida, we had innumerable stops in public restrooms. And every time there was an automatic flusher, we had to do an elaborate dance to prevent it from flushing while she was in the stall, since she hated the noise. Another mom said she keeps a stack of Post-Its in her purse and she just sticks one over the sensor when her daughter uses those. Then you can just go in an take it off when they’re done. Now I don’t have to hover with my hand over the sensor in public restrooms anymore!

  3. Barb says

    I carried the kids potty in the back of the van with us when my kids were new to pottying. I even put it in our tent on camping trips. I would line with a gallon ziplock bag for ease of disposal and add toilet paper to prevent spills or splashes. So if someone ever needed to go potty, there was always a familiar potty available. No urgent rushes to find a place to stop when duty called. (we used the Baby Bjorn)

  4. Jen LC says

    Yes! +1 on taking your own potty, especially when faced with the dreaded pit latrines during camping trips. For bigger kids, we’ve used one of those training seats that sits atop a bucket lined with a trashbag. You can put it inside the tent for privacy…works in the back of an SUV or minivan on long trips too!

  5. says

    Asha, what a great post. I wish I had thought of some of these when we were having the same problems. This is exactly why the breeding universe is lucky to have Parent Hacks.

  6. Asha Dornfest says

    Mamacita: Thank you…your comment warmed this breeder’s heart. Especially :)

  7. Lauren says

    My daughter was terrified of loud flushes and one thing that helped was to make her a pair of temporary “earmuffs” before she went into the stall. I usually just tied a pair of her little stretch pants around her head to muffle noise. I always had spare clothes along anyway. Just be sure the pants are secure enough not to fall into the toilet!

  8. Rebecca says

    As my brother concluded his potty training, my parents prepared for a cross country trip. Knowing that he waited until the last moment to go, and not knowing where restrooms were along the way, my mother packed his potty chair and we lost little time on our road trip looking for potties. We do still tease him a little about doing his business along the Pennsylvania turnpike when he was two years old.

  9. Ronica says

    My daughter was afraid of all toilets, not just public ones. Ages 3 to 4 were nightmare years, because of the constipation, the laxatives, the suppositories…

    I finally took her in the bathroom, and took the toilet apart, explaining that it was just a bowl of water, with a seat, and the tank just flushed it out. Knowing what it was helped. (Didn’t solve the problem, just helped.) Eventually, she got over it. Long years, though. Long. Sigh.

  10. m says

    I am 33, and I still have a hard time pooping in unfamiliar toilets. It makes vacations tough. I have tried everything: lots of water, laxatives, stool softeners, etc. My body just doesn’t want to go until I get home. I think it is pretty common. Not fun, though.

  11. says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!

    These tips are so helpful, but most importantly it made me feel like I’m not alone. I was feeling great after my potty training success and then this issuing of going in public came up. We are making some headway though, and I really appreciate the advice.

    If anyone’s interested in reading about my struggles and successes with potty training, I’ve chronicled them here: http://www.munchkinreport.com/blog/pee-pee/