By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My 3-year-old daughter is fully potty-trained for urination – no diaper at night or for naps. But she refuses to use the toilet for a bowel movement and asks for a diaper instead (she will sit on the potty and pretend to go but always wants a diaper). She doesn’t seem to be afraid of the toilet and gives nonsense answers when we ask why she won’t go. What would help?

A. By nature, 3-year-olds need to assert themselves. They have strong reasons for not wanting to use the toilet but they can’t understand them, much less explain them. Making a big issue of the process can become a power struggle where your daughter’s healthy self-assertion goes astray – resisting your instructions rather than learning to control her body.

She has made great progress – potty-trained during the day and even at night. She’s shown you she knows what the toilet is for and how to use it.

But bowel movements are special. To small children they seem like some hidden part of their bodies that they are learning to master. Questions may make your daughter fear she’s failed or done something wrong – not the best feelings about bodily functions.

It’s hard for adults to remember how perplexing and disconcerting this process once seemed to be. Watch a child flush the toilet over and over. Is it to be annoying? Or to get attention?

No. Children have to be scientists and conduct experiments to figure out the world we take for granted.

Your daughter knows what you want if she’s pretending to try, but she’s not ready – which is why she wants the diaper. If a parent struggles with a child this age, the result may just be constipation.

You can avoid the turmoil. Just apologize to her. (Imagine that!) Say you’re sorry you’ve focused on this issue and you will leave her bowel movements up to her.

Don’t convey a sense of shame or failure. Let her know she can use a diaper until she decides, on her own, that she is ready for the potty. If you’re patient, you’ll end up using far fewer diapers.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.