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I understand why toileting problems in young children scare parents so much. Just look at the crazy advice parents have gotten over the years: In 1935, for example, a U.S. government manual advised parents to "enforce absolute regularity of bowel movements by inserting a soap stick in the infant's rectum at precise times of the day." For children having trouble getting the hang of the potty, some authorities reported, it "was not uncommon for physicians to prescribe frequent enemas as a consequence rather than simply a treatment." After all, wrote Sigmund Freud, passing waste "counts as one of the autoerotic and infantile pleasures; the infant renounces it only with reluctance under the pressure of toilet training."
I could go on and on here, but you get the idea: Much advice around toilet training isn't very scientific, and even the experts aren't always clear. So I encourage parents to use common sense.
I'm writing all this as a prelude to—or an excuse for—my own kid's trouble with toileting. Last spring, our 2-year-old son, Ryan, became seriously constipated. For months, he'd also passed little pellets, usually while sleeping, and didn't take to the potty well. My wife and I figured he just needed more motivation to use the potty—we gave him sticker charts, M&M's as rewards, regular toilet sitting, prune juice, etc. Nothing worked. By April, things were so bad that he was screaming from belly pain every night and passing small, liquidy poops. Called encopresis, this meant that Ryan was so constipated, only a little waste could leak around the hard, immobile mass of poop stuck in his colon. Gross, I know. But it's incredibly common; statistics show that almost one in 10 visits to the pediatrician concerns constipation. And the problem was affecting our whole family: Ryan wasn't sleeping well, his appetite fell and he lost weight, and my wife and I began to obsess about his bowel movements. Not healthy. The low point came when I saw Metamucil's infamous television ad featuring a park ranger and the Old Faithful geyser in the background, and I wished Ryan could have a bowel movement that was just as vigorous.