"Help! My kid won't poop in an unfamiliar public toilet!"
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?