Updated: Mar 27
Inside: Potty training tips for helping your child release pee when you start potty training, and your *camel* child is holding their pee.
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High-pressure first days in my life tend to start out the same way. First come the tense, hunched shoulders (the spot where I hold my stress), then the appetite tanks (butterflies in the belly), and there's me, forgetting to exhale.
Pretty much, I would be in a state of holding.
Turns out, potty training can look the same for some kids.
When I started working with parents as a potty training consultant, I figured the most common potty training problem would be too many accidents. But guess what I actually see tripping up the process more often?
Holding. The toddler not peeing and holding till the bursting point.
The trouble with holding pee is it's super uncomfortable to hold in your pee, and that pressure can start to bring on a fear of releasing or sitting to use the potty in general. So I'm sharing a few simple tips here that can help for the early days of potty training and milder problems with a child releasing pee in the potty.
Let's first understand why a child can have trouble releasing their pee in the potty.
We know that toddlers don't like new.
And some toddlers react to this brand new feeling of being diaper-free in a strong way.
They hold their pee.
They don't want to let it go.
Some kids have a pee on the floor or pee in the pants and then don't want to mess it up...so they hold and hold because they're trying to do the right thing.
I often hear parents share that their child is holding because their toddler is strong-willed or being a *camel*. You may have a super independent, spirited kiddo. But that holding of the pee is not typically related to the personality. More often as a potty training consultant, I see that holding of the pee relates to a level of anxiety.
The child is scared to let out the pee. Those sphincter muscles lock.
And with potty training, you want to be sure you're not treating something as behavior, if it's physical. Feeling anxious about something new is a physical reaction.
Think about how it's felt when you've been on a roadtrip and can't find a rest stop soon enough to get to the bathroom and pee. While you're waiting to pull off the road and get to a bathroom, it feels SUPER uncomfortable, right?
That escalating pressure to pee does not feel good to us grownups or potty training toddlers, either.
Consider what happens once you arrive at a rest stop, dash into the bathroom, and find a free stall? The pee doesn't flow out right away. It often takes a second, even though you were just at the bursting point of holding in your pee with all your might.
That's because of your sphincter muscles.
When there's a higher pressure to pee, it takes some effort to get those sphincter muscles to unlock and release. Jamie, (author of Oh Crap Potty Training and Oh Crap I Have a Toddler), shares some helpful release tricks for the child who's struggling to release pee, if you're starting out in potty training and want to help your child naturally release the pee.
What else to consider with a child who can't release their pee?
If you're just starting out or about to start potty training, I'd consider the intensity of what you're seeing. Your child holding their pee for a couple of hours and pee dancing around is different than a child holding their pee half the day until the nap/night diaper comes on.
Keep in mind, you don't want your toddler holding back on pee to the point of distress becoming a pattern. If you're seeing that holding back on the pee intensifying with your child, or the reaction is so strong that you're only seeing a few pees total in the day, then reach out for one-on-one support or consider a potty breather.
Holding pee as a pattern is harder to flip the longer it goes on.
And simple pee release tricks won't generally resolve the issue if the anxiety has escalated too high (that's where you're looking at a release issue and want to get some personal support.) For kids in a milder level of performance anxiety starting out in potty training, that's where I've seen these simple tricks can be the magic to see more releases.
More releases of pee lowers the anxiety and makes peeing in the potty feel safe and okay. When you see more pee releases, then the holding typically fades away.
Here are a few other simple tools that could be effective in the early days.
1. Water play helps a child release their pee.
Why do we feel the need to pee in a bath or warm shower? Water helps those sphincter muscles to relax and release. When you're trying to get your child to sit longer on the potty AND relax and release their pee, it helps to have some water play activity.
I love this color-changing bath book because it combines something fun and distracting with water play, such a win-win when you're trying to see some pees in the potty in the early days of potty training.
Here's a peek at what it looks like!
2. Open mouth exercises help those sphincter muscles relax to help release pee.
Think pretending to blow out birthday candles, blowing through a straw, or even blowing bubbles while your child is sitting on the potty. Anything with that open mouth shape is one way to open and unlock those sphincter muscles (something you may have heard in preparing for childbirth.)
You can try teaching your child some playful ways to breathe to help relax and settle down, so you're more likely to see a pee or poop. Visuals help for young kids. For example, in a new favorite book, Alphabreaths, the author shares how to do a Cake Breath or a fun Alligator Breath (and the illustrations are so sweet!).
The beauty of learning playful ways to breathe is you don't need any *stuff* with you. You can be in the library bathroom and remind your child of the Butterfly Breath or Flower Breath that she learned with you.
3. Distract with something (other than a screen) that keeps their attention.
Why not bring in a screen to get the easy release of pee in the potty?
Here's why. If a tablet or phone helps to bring on a pee, your toddler will likely be unaware that they even peed because they'll be so absorbed in the the show or video that they're watching.
That's not good.
In fact, screen time brings on such a subconscious release of pee, that I even recommend setting it up as a potty rule soon into potty training, so that you don't see accidents.
You want your toddler to connect with feel pee and release in the potty.
That connection to I'm Peeing and releasing in the potty is what you're looking for so that your child learns that I Have to Go Pee feeling we look for in Oh Crap Potty Training.
The other problem that I've seen come up with some parents I've worked with in private consultations is that they've found a screen does help to bring on a pee with their toddler.
But you CAN'T pack an ipad for daycare or preschool.
This is important to remember! You don't want to use a trick that can't be transferred to daycare or preschool or other caregiver situations. That's how you can get stuck.
If the screen becomes the pattern, you'll need to break that pattern at some point.
Think about all the places and times when you won't be able to pull out a screen to help your child pee. So it's best to start off with using a tool that you can use outside the home, that you can pack for daycare, if your child needs a little crutch in the beginning to help relax and release the pee.
I've been loving interactive books (like Let's Play, Press Here, and Say Zoop) to help kids sit longer on the potty and release pee and poop. And in my private consultations, I've seen books help as a tool that then gets packed up for daycare.
That way, your child has that special book to feel more confident in the new-to-your-child daycare bathroom, because he got all the pees in the potty with that same special book/toy at home. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Play to the power of magic at this age.
If your child FEELS like the special book or small toy helps them pee in the potty with you at home, that helps build up confidence. And that book or small fidget toy can be used as a transition tool for heading back to daycare or preschool diaper-free. Transitional objects are super helpful with potty training!
What kinds of interactive books can help?
Look for books where your child can follow along on their own, without needing you to read the words to them. You can start off reading a few favorite books over and over on those first days of potty training at home. And then your toddler won't need you to read it to them when it's more of a doing book (like a slide-and-see book for toddlers.)
Other distractions to help your child release pee in the potty in the early days?
Stacking cups (especially paired with water play)
Funny books or songs to relax and laugh (we love Laurie Berkner for giggles, and this picture book shares her popular dinosaur song lyrics as a book!)
A balloon breath to help exhale and release tension
Once you start seeing all those pee releases, how do you help see those pees release in the small potty (or big potty with a potty insert)? It can be a process. Don't forget to celebrate the small wins as we're not expecting perfection in the early days of potty training.
What else may you discover?
Your body's way of holding stress (shoulders, back, belly, etc.) may start to relax and release tension the more you see your child have an easier time releasing their pee.
One release triggers another, and another. For your child, and even for you.