When Your Child Is (Very) Late To Potty-Train

by Michaela Brown
Originally Published: 
Children that are late to potty-train
Yegor Aleyev / Getty Images

I do a lot of things right as a mom. I make sure my children’s lives are balanced with structure and bedtime routines but also fun movie nights and catching fireflies until 10 p.m. in the summer. They eat vegetables, but also candy. They play organized sports, but also have time to run around and play hide-and-seek with neighborhood friends. They use manners (usually) and do chores (when prompted).

However, like any other mom, I have faults. And one major fault I have is that I am a perfectionist.

As much as I hate to admit it, when my kids don’t reach a milestone on what most consider the “typical” schedule, my anxiety hits the roof. I feel like I’ve failed. And it’s not pretty.

I know this is not a good parenting approach. I know it’s not their fault—or mine. But all of my kids rode the last seat on the potty-training bus. And it damn near killed me.

When my friends’ kids were putting adorable stickers on charts and loudly proclaiming “I go potty, Mommy!” at 2, mine were nowhere near ready. And that was okay, because 3 is still a normal age to master this challenge, right? Well, what happens when they are still struggling at 4? And 5?

You cry, that’s what.

Then you just feel like a giant ball of epic fails and want to crawl into a dark hole because you are not fit for motherhood. (That’s how I felt anyway.)

I did the charts. And reward systems. Toys. Skittles. M & Ms. I talked to our pediatrician, who discussed, and then confirmed, that my kids didn’t have any severe medical issues causing these delays. I read articles and books. They always went potty before leaving the house. I tried to time meals and drinks just right. Everything was analyzed and obsessed over as I spiraled into anger, frustration, and anxiety.

We’d have a good week, two even, and I thought, “Yes! Finally! We did it!” until there was a regression. Back to square one. That ugly cycle repeated over. And over. And over. For years.

Years of bringing extra clothes wherever we went. Years of panicking that there would be an accident—at a birthday party, on someone else’s couch, or carpet. Or we’d be those people who caused a mandatory pool evacuation. Or the preschool would call and say it wasn’t working out.

Years of silently (and sometimes out loud) cursing all the parents who’d trained their kids in three days. Years of people saying, “Don’t worry! He won’t go to college in diapers!” and wondering if, in fact, he might.

Years of comparing my kids—and my mothering—to others. Years of wondering why I had failed.

But here’s what I learned, through all the long weeks of regressions, through all the tears I cried into my wine after they were in bed.

This isn’t my failure.

This isn’t my child’s failure.

This is just where he is on his developmental journey through childhood.

I also learned that a control-freak mom plus a strong-willed, independently minded child does not equal success in the potty-training department. Probably the greatest epiphany came when our pediatrician said to me, “Mom. This isn’t up to you. You don’t get to choose the timeline here.”

Um, what? I am not in control of how this goes down?

No, I’m not.

And my husband helped too, as he often put things in perspective for me.

“What if he poops in the pool?!” I’d cry.

“So he poops in the pool. We’ll deal with it,” he said.

“What if he poops his pants at school?”

“So he poops his pants at school. We’ll deal with it.”

And it was as simple as that. Would we be embarrassed? Yep. Would the world end? No. Would we still have our beautiful, healthy, family of 5 together, under one roof? Yep. And would we have a funny story to look back on in 10 years? Probably (but give me a few).

Also, it was important (and this wasn’t easy) to maintain a positive outlook as best I could. An article on says that “Children late to potty train can sense disapproval” and that it’s important to “instill confidence in them that they will indeed become potty trained.” They need to believe they can do it. “It’s a relief to them a feeling that they are on the right path,” the article says.

This was a big piece for me. And many times maintaining that “positivity” meant I had to check out, back away, and let my husband take over for a bit. This is another good strategy recommended on by developmental psychologist Dr. Rika Alper, who says, “Parents with children late to toilet train are often at their wits end and patience may be hard to come by.” She encourages the parent “who has been most entrenched in the process to back away and let the other parent take the lead.”

Slowly, as time passed, and as my kids finally caught up to their peers, I came to realize that everything, in fact, really was going to be okay. There were times when, as my husband predicted, we had to “deal with it.” There were times I was embarrassed. My kids were embarrassed. But also as predicted, the world never ended if one of them pooped or peed their pants.

I also had to take a long, hard look in the mirror on my worst days of potty-training. So much of this battle was my own. So much of this was my own need for perfectionism. For control. Everyone else was done at 3! We needed to be done at 3! But we weren’t. And that was just our reality.

Because the truth is, having a 4 or 5-year who still struggles sometimes with bathroom issues actually isn’t that uncommon. “4-5 year olds are very busy, and they get absorbed in what they are doing,” Dr. Laura Markham says on Aha! Parenting. “It takes time for humans to learn just how long we can delay starting for the bathroom.” And my kids sure liked to delay it. A. LOT.

I had one child who still wore pull-ups on occasion at 4. I had one who carried extra underpants in a backpack through kindergarten. And one who had nighttime accidents well past his peers, who were already doing sleepovers.

But our potty training struggles do not define us as a family. This does not define my kids or me as a mom.

What this means is that each of my kids had one or more factors that impacted their ability to potty-train. One was easily distracted and simply never gave himself enough time, which got better as he matured. And we learned that sugar went right through him, so if he drank a juice or Gatorade, he’d need a bathroom within 5-10 minutes STAT. Another had a bladder issue that also got better with age. And yet another had anxiety about getting into trouble and would often hide it.

We had to diagnose and address these issues and needs individually. And most of all, I had to keep reminding myself that as much as I don’t want to be sometimes, I am the grownup and it’s up to me to act like one.

Even though our method took far longer than 3 days, in the whole scheme of parenting, this is really just one piece. And when they’re teenagers, I’ll probably wish for these days again when our worst struggle was having to change our underpants.

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