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There can be lots of different reasons why your child stops themselves from weeing or pooing. It could be just one or a combination of the following issues:   

Withholding most commonly follows on from a period of constipation:

  • Child in pain holding stomachThis could be brief - your child may have been unwell with a high temperature and poorer drinking. Their poo became drier, hard and knobbly. It hurt them so they decided ‘I won’t ever do one again’.

  • A painful poo can happen at any age. A family may not even recall the event, but the child develops a fear of letting poo out.

Fear it will hurt:

  • Fear of pain based on a previous experience. Their brain may be warning them that letting a poo out will be a disaster, even though their memory of a hard poo, could be some time ago.

  • Passing a large, hard poo can cause an anal fissure – a small tear inside the anus. Every time the anus stretches to let the poo out it hurts. Fissures heal by themselves over time as long as the poo is kept soft so it can be passed easily.

  • A sore bottom caused by nappy rash or an episode of diarrhoea. Uncontrollable liquid poo can also make them feel unsafe and out of control of their bowel movements

Anxiety around the toilet/bathroom area itself:

Monster on the toilet

  • Fear of the splash as their poo hits the water in the toilet.

  • Worrying about ‘monsters hiding in the loo’.

  • Using a bathroom away from home especially public toilets. There are different types of flushes, locks and the unexpected noise of a hand drier turning on can terrify some children. 

  • Worries at school – not being allowed to leave the classroom, fear of their peers commenting on them pooing.

Learning to cope with a new experience like using a potty and a change of routine:

  • Withholding is common during toilet training - some children find the whole process, equipment and experience scary. They may also find the pressure to perform too great which can cause them to resist going. This is why it’s important to keep toilet training a positive experience and use plenty of praise and encouragement.

  • Late toilet training - some children crave the security and safety of having a nappy on and will do anything to stop them being removed.

  • Getting used to a new routine or setting such as starting, nursery, changing class, after school clubs etc.

  • The environment of a different toilet may be unfamiliar and scary. The more nervous they become, the harder it is for them to relax and go when they need to.

  • If your child has not mastered independent skills like wiping their bottom they may refuse to go to the toilet.

An additional need or sensory difference:

  • Some children are more sensitive to internal sensations (known as Interoception). This can mean that their response to the sensation of poo is more extreme.

  • Occasionally a child may feel that the poo is a part of themselves, and they are reluctant to lose it - like losing a limb. For more information and ways to support these children, see our resources on Toilet Anxiety and Sensory Needs and Toileting

Toilet resistance and other behavioural factors:

  • Your child may not want to leave what they are doing because they are engrossed in play or an exciting TV programme/video game. They may be fearful that they will miss out on something or that another child may play with their things. This is more about toilet resistance – more about the activity and less about fear. 

More information about withholding and how to treat it