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The Psychology of Withholding Bowel Movements

The Psychology of withholding bowel movements

Withholding bowel movements, or resisting to use the potty, can be a difficult situation, for not only toddlers and children, but their parents, as well. This type of behavior in children usually comes right after potty training, just when you think they are independent. Withholding may occur from a prior traumatic experience or from distractions from environmental stimulation. Trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be something extreme, and the environmental influence on withholding also doesn’t need to be something you would even suspect as potentially contributing to this problem. Let’s dive in to break this down a bit!

Traumatic Experiences During Potty Training Can Lead to Withholding 

I recall distinctly the first time I had to use a public restroom when my toddler was just potty trained. You know how some toilets automatically flush, rather loudly, once you get off? My daughter was petrified to use a potty in public for months after one accidentally flushed while she was on it!

Painful bowel movements are an example of other traumatic experiences that may cause withholding in toddlers and kids. Although this may seem mundane to adults, children who are newly potty trained haven’t had many experiences having bowel movements, especially if painful, unsuccessful, or watery. They are simply learning as they go… literally. Associating pain with potty time can be a trigger for kids for desiring to hold back their bowel movements. 

Environmental Distractions Can Lead to Kids' Withholding Poop 

The other aspect of withholding that comes from the mind is environmental distraction. Children are easily stimulated by things happening around them. For bowel movements, that means holding them in until they are finished watching a TV show, playing on an Ipad or playing with a friend. The brain can only focus on several things at once especially in younger children and therefore if they are focused on something they deem as more important, they are able to hold back a bowel movement. This would cause similar side effects as the trauma response, but most of the time, children are unaware of the effects of withholding in this circumstance… because they’re distracted.

Overtime Withholding Can Create Greater Challenges For the Family 

Whether experiencing a startling sound of a noisy public toilet, or having a hard, painful and traumatic bowel movement, toddlers and kids may start demonstrate psychological resistance to have another bowel movement. This can lead to physical clenching and resistance to a bowel movement creating further challenges like constipation, stomach pains, and bloating. These symptoms which can make children upset and uncomfortable, creating further irritation. Talk this through with your little one.

Tip 1 : Encourage Positive Experiences During Potty Time

Encourage your child to try again and comfort them when things can get rough. By listening and encouraging them, you can assist with any fears or anxiety around bowel movements.

Tip 2: Add a Daily Prebiotic to Help Soften Stool and Make Bowel Movements More Comfortable for Toddlers and Kids 

If your kiddo continues to withhold and it is causing painful pooping, constipation, stomach pain, etc., adding a daily prebiotic like Begin Health’s Growing Up Prebiotics can help regulate their bowels by supporting their digestion through the 3g of fiber offered in every serving. Growing up Prebiotics work by softening the stool and making their bowel movements more comfortable and easy to pass. 
Get Started with Growing up Prebiotics

By adding a daily prebiotic into their supplement routine and making bowel movements a positive experience, it can encourage them to go… even when they would rather be watching the rest of that TV show!

Key Takeaways

Overall, withholding due to psychological stress, anxiety, or environment is a hurdle many parents must jump with their newly potty-trained children and can be tough to manage. By continuing to encourage using the bathroom regularly, acknowledging fears or anxiety around bowel movements, and normalizing a conversation around how their bodies feel and act, they can continue to go without trouble. Your role as the parent is to be your child’s cheerleader in the bathroom. Using encouraging language and body-positive perspectives can teach your child to not withhold their bowels and to ultimately make them feel better.

Summary If you notice your child is withholding or has poor toilet habits, be your child’s cheerleader in the bathroom, use encouraging, body-positive language to reduce fear and support them on their journey of bathroom independence.
Dr. Nicole Avena

Dr. Nicole Avena

Dr. Avena is a neuroscientist and nutrition expert based in the New York Area.Her focus is on nutrition and brain health throughout the lifespan. She is the author of several books, including What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler.Check her out at

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