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

Q. Our 3-and-1/2-year-old girl finally used the toilet for pooping, after several months of comfortably urinating by herself.

It happened after a weekend away with a 4-year-old who she watched, and was evidently encouraged to try it at home. She pooped again the next day. We showed her a lot of praise and joy at her accomplishment.

She had previously showed little interest in giving up her diapers to go poop, and admitted she was scared of making a poop in the toilet.

Then she stopped, and we are back where we were. She runs and gets her own diaper when it’s time. Sometimes she will “try,” which means sitting on the toilet for a few minutes, then getting up to find a diaper.

She has said things like, “I really like making poo in the potty!” and “Maybe later I will make poo in the potty,” but never really pushes herself to do it again.

We are just a little confused that she started, then stopped. We don’t want to push her, but we do feel like she likes the ease of grabbing a diaper, going, then having dad and mom quickly take it off and clean her up. We (and she) know she is capable, but she has a routine which works for her and she obviously doesn’t feel like pushing herself.

Should we nudge her along? Go “cold turkey” with all diapers gone from the house? Not say a thing about it?

A. No wonder you are confused. Your daughter does demonstrate many of the signs of readiness.

She can feel her readiness to “poo” coming on, she can tell you, and can hold on long enough to get herself to where she needs to go, or get herself a diaper. She even showed you that she could “poo” in the toilet.

But she isn’t fully ready, since she hasn’t mastered her fears, and perhaps doesn’t fully feel that this achievement is her own.

Perhaps all the praise when she imitated her 4-year-old friend was a little too much – too much excitement, and perhaps too much of your sense of victory interfering with her sense that this was her own.

Do you know what she is afraid of? Some children are afraid of the noise that a flushing toilet makes. Or that they’ll fall in. And many are quite troubled by the fact that once their b.m.’s are flushed down the toilet they disappear for ever. What happens to them? Where do they go? Where does she think they go? These are important questions for young children since they think of their b.m.’s as a part of their own bodies, as a precious product of themselves.

Pushing her isn’t likely to help. She seems quite motivated to imitate and be like older children and is bound to tire of diapers, which distinguish her from them.

Once a child who is developing healthily in all respects has had a chance to fully explore her questions, conquer her fears and feel that pooping in the toilet is her own achievement, rather than one that has been taken away from her, she’ll be fully ready to show herself that she can be successful.

Should she give up her diaper? I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, tell her that it is up to her to decide when and where she will use it. You will be ready to help her when she asks for it. Let her know that you know that when she’s ready to “poo” in the toilet, she will, and that there’s no need for her to reassure you about “later” or “really liking it.”

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.