Toddler can hold his pee, but can’t release it

We started potty training our 2-year-old boy several weeks ago, and it is…not going very well. He is amazing at holding it, but can’t seem to figure out how to release it. He seems very at ease on the potty and will happily read his favorite books, several times through, but he never pees. He has basically never had a good pee on the potty (the exception is once or twice, sobbing through peeing everywhere). I got some Teddy Grahams to introduce rewards when he goes in the potty, but it’s never actually happened so the incentive is basically theoretical at this point.

I don’t get any sense that he’s being stubborn or that we’re in a power struggle — I think he just hasn’t identified that internal on/off switch. I believe he’s holding it so long that it becomes really, really uncomfortable. He’ll go 6 hours (!) without peeing, and then fill his diaper during his nap. Sometimes I can see him actively trying to hold it in, through little shudders, while he is sitting on the potty or even sitting in the bath.

It feels like we’ve been plateaued for weeks with no progress at all, and I can’t find much advice online or in BPN archives beyond little tricks, which we’ve tried all of: blowing bubbles, singing songs, making him laugh, blowing into a whistle, the sound of running water, putting his hands in warm water. He even has a little cold right now, and coughing on the potty hasn’t made any come out either.

Has anyone experienced really extreme holding from a toddler and have any advice to share on how you taught them to release?

Some more details, if it helps:

I chose the Oh Crap! Potty Training book to follow, which is basically: naked for the first phase, then commando for the second phase. He is 26 months old and showed many of the signs of readiness described in the book.

We took four straight days to focus on potty training and followed the book’s advice to a T, but saw little progress, and by the end we were so frustrated we decided to take a break to regroup.

Now we’re trying again with a few changes: He hated being naked or commando, so this time we have him in big boy underwear. The book suggests catching your kid mid-pee and saying gently “wait sweetie, can you hold it?” as you transfer him to the potty — this seemed extremely upsetting to him, so we stopped trying to make it to the potty and are focusing on pointing out that he successfully peed instead of holding it, in hopes that he’ll start to identify that feeling of letting the peepee out. I’m also ready and eager to give him a Teddy Graham treat when he pees in the potty, but it never happens so it’s not providing any incentive.

Lastly, the book suggests using the phrase “Open the peepee gate” to describe the feeling of letting yourself pee. Any other suggestions of phrases that resonated with your child would be greatly appreciated.

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I strongly suggest you stop training and wait quite a long time before you start again. My son also showed early signs at age 2, but lost interest and I felt we were doing more harm than good. I did a lot of reading, and from what I found it seems like boys are typically 3 to 3.5 years before they are trained. Girls are closer to 3. i found that to be dead on right for my kids. And, I was surprised because my son seemed to be really ready! From what I read it said that the kids who were "trained" earlier than this had very trained parents, but were not really trained themselves. 

First, you're doing such a great job! Hang in there.

We just potty trained our 26 mo old over the last couple months, and he struggled with this part, too. This will sound weird, but it worked for us: He loves any chance he gets to interact with our phones, so I started letting him push the Start button on the iPhone timer, set for 5 minutes, and then challenged him to "let the pee out" before the orange circle of the timer disappeared (I imagine any timer with some kind of visual like that would work). And if managed to let the pee out before the timer went off, he got to push the Stop button. We stayed quiet, and just silently watched the orange circle together. Zoning out seemed to help for some reason. Reading was too much fun, and turned into a way to get attention from us and alone time from his little sister. :)

If he didn't get any pee out in 5 minutes, I stopped the timer, we got up, and tried again the next time he did the pee-pee dance. It took a couple days, but eventually he figured it out, and we set the timer for shorter and shorter increments until he just peed right away. At that point, we just stopped using it altogether ("Let's see if you can do it without the timer.")

Hope this helps! Good luck!

It sounds like he's not biologically ready to potty train yet. As you said, he hasn't identified that internal release mechanism. His neuro-feedback loop is not intact yet. This is nothing that he or you can control. Can you stick with diapers for now and try again in a couple months? 26 months old is really young, especially for a boy. My boys weren't ready until 3+ years old. 

Every child is different and when I tried to potty train my son at 2.5, it was too early. He became really constipated, so we just let it go, switched to pull up diapers and gave him the option of the potty. A few months after, he made the transition by his own choosing (no more wet diapers, prefrred potty to diaper) and we haven't had an issue since. Long story short, they're ready when they are ready and in our case it really helped to relax and give him more time and options.

POTTY TRAINING IS THE WORST, so first please give yourself a break. And he may be too young. Two is VERY young, and for some reason especially for boys.

But I have good news! We went through something VERY similar with our daughter, who was three. She would hold her pee ALL DAY, including skipping a nap, and then we'd put on a diaper to put her to bed, she would immediately pee boatloads in the diaper, we'd change it and she'd go to sleep. So it was like 12 hours of holding pee. She would get a little distraught, and sometimes would climb on my lap mid-day and let out a TINY bit of pee, and then go about her business. It was insane.

It took at least three weeks to potty train her and I'm sorry to say I don't remember what ended up doing it. But we were doing the Oh Crap thing too (over allllll of winter break). Oh, the good news. THE GOOD NEWS IS THIS: You have a kid with a big bladder! On cross-country flights you won't have to take him to the gross airplane bathroom! She has so many fewer accidents than her friends! She's six now and our potty training story was the worst of all of our friends but we NEVER have to pee in the bushes at the park. :)

This, too, will pass. Be patient. And, again, 2 just might be a little too early for your kid. No shame in that game.

I might suggest putting him back in his diaper when you have him go to the potty, and if that works then just put it in the potty. The familiarity with the sensation of the diaper and the act of eliminating might help him make the connection.

Also watching mom and dad go so he can see the step by step you go through intuitively- sitting down, taking a breath, relaxing your body...

You may also want to take focus off the release part and refocus on being excited about the other parts for the time being. I have a friend whose daughter didn't poop for a week because of an emotional potty/diaper interaction.

Lastly, my son loved the Potty book by Leslie Patricelli. He was always especially taken by moment the kid's eyes light up when they have to go after waiting and waiting. The book actually focuses a lot on the idea that you know you have to go but it doesnt always come right away, and that it's exciting when it does.

Oh, and yes to fun underwear, being excited and making a big deal that he gets to pick them out and wear them because he goes on the potty now. And yes to agreeing on a prize after x number of successes.

Fingers crossed for you all!

Blowing on a trumpet or a whistle while sitting on potty sometimes helps "open the gates". But the bigger problem here is that you are frustrated and your child is feeling upset, and that is a BAD combination for potty training. Take a break for 6 weeks and during those 6 weeks put away the potty, stop reading any potty training books, don't talk about pee or poo at all, and pretend potty training does not exist. Allow your frustration to die down and your child to stop associating the potty with parental pressure. In 6 weeks try again. Try to relax! Your child will not go away to college wearing diapers, potty training will happen, no need to rush.

I hate Oh Crap.  I'm a pediatrician, so this is my professional advice!  It works great for some kids.  For others (like my own) its just not the right way.  My real beef with it is that they freak out the parents into panicking that if they don't potty train by a certain age, they will never be able to do it.  First kid we trained via oh crap at 26 months.  The training was easy, but he had a huge behavioral regression that I think was due to the stress.  It wasn't worth it.  Second kid we did a halfhearted try at 2.5.  had absolutely no interest/ability, so we stopped trying.  3 months later, at 2.75, he just decided one day to start using the potty and was doing it in 1 day.  So we didn't actually need to potty train.  I think almost all kids are like that--if you follow their cues and their timing, they'll just do it.

Thank you all so much -- original poster here. I so appreciated your thoughtful responses and shared frustrations! We tried a few of the great tips here to no avail, so we ultimately decided to take the advice of many here and wait until he's more ready. The previous commenter really hit the nail on the head for me: the Oh Crap book really had me panicked about missing a finite potty training window! Hopefully at some point it'll be "his" idea and we'll have a completely different experience the next time around. Thank you again!!