My Child Won't Go Potty in Public Restrooms

It's very common for children who are newly toilet-trained (or still learning) to not want to go potty in public restrooms, which tend to be unfamiliar, intimidating, and loud. One simple solution: Have your child use the bathroom before you leave the house.

Keep your trips to a minimum, and when you do go out, make your trips short and sweet so you'll be home in time to go potty in a familiar place when the urge comes up again.

However, this is really avoiding the problem of public restrooms instead of trying to solve it. This may be necessary if the problem is severe and causing your child to refuse to go to the potty at all. But otherwise, try some of these suggestions so you can gradually help your child become more comfortable with using the potty away from home.


Go Potty in Public Yourself

Even if you don't have to go, create opportunities for your child to see you using a public restroom. This helps them learn that it's not a scary place after all.

Pop in to wash your hands and take them along. This gives them a chance to check things out without any pressure or power struggle. Familiarity brings comfort, so it can lead your child to be less apprehensive about going potty in public.


Reduce the Noise Level

Probably the biggest problem with public bathrooms is noise. For kids who are sensitive, it can be very jarring. Reduce noise by:

  • Carrying earmuffs or kid-sized headphones with you.
  • Avoiding restrooms with lots of stalls. Look for a family restroom if there is one; this is usually a smaller room with just a toilet and sink, more like your bathroom at home.
  • Covering the sensor on an automatic flush toilet so that it doesn't take your child by surprise. You can use your hand or a sticky piece of paper.
  • Letting your child wait by the sink while you flush.
  • Bringing your own paper towels or hand towels so you won't need to use hand dryers.

Take an Insert or Sit with Your Child

Sometimes you can make an unfamiliar place feel more friendly by bringing something from home. You can take your own potty seat (awkward to carry, but it works for some) or an insert that fits inside the public toilet seat.

A huge obstacle for some kids is the fear of falling into the potty. If this has already happened to your child and they fear it is going to happen again, an insert can be a lifesaver and help avoid a potty training backslide.

Another option is to have your child sit sideways or to sit with them. Hop on the toilet far enough back to leave some room for your child. Get them situated and hold on while they go.


Avoid the Splash

Another obstacle can come from the splash of water when a child is going poop. This can be a big issue for kids who are used to using a potty chair without water inside at home.

To address this, crumble up some toilet paper and drop it in the toilet before your child goes so that the poop will have a bit of a landing pad.


Go Somewhere Fun

Distraction can be a powerful tool when raising kids. If you go somewhere fun, you might find that your child is so distracted and focused on everything else that they forget all about not wanting to go to the bathroom in public.

So pick somewhere your child loves to go (a store, restaurant, or even a special destination like a children's museum) and see if it relaxes them or distracts them enough to try the public potty.


Make a "No Potty, No Play" Rule

You can also use fun places to your advantage with an "if, then" statement. "If you go potty, then you can play at the park." Choose somewhere you know your child loves, like a park or the ball pit at the pizza place.

Beforehand, talk about all the fun things they like to do there. Once there, be very matter-of-fact and tell them they need to potty before they play. (This is also a good strategy if they hate interrupting play to go potty.)

If they refuse, tell them that you'll have to go home because they can't poop or pee on the playground equipment. Give them a chance to change their mind, but if they still refuse to go—and this is the most important part—follow through and go back home. If you don't, this tactic won't work.


Go Somewhere Familiar

Sometimes, there are different levels of public that your toilet-learner will tolerate. Try going to a relative's or friend's house and using (or even just checking out) their bathroom.

Then try using the bathroom at your place of worship or a sibling's school. Work up to trying the bathroom at a small, cozy bookstore or coffee shop.

Your child may benefit from exposure to a variety of different and unfamiliar bathrooms.


Ditch the Diapers and Pull-Ups

When your child demands a diaper and you provide one, they know it's there for them. It becomes a crutch—and a power struggle. So ditch the diapers completely. Make sure your child knows the diapers are all gone and that you're not buying any more since they are so good at using the bathroom.


Offer Lots of Practice and Praise

Once your child goes successfully, commit to getting lots of practice. Run lots of small errands around potty times to reinforce the new skill. While you're near the restrooms, double-check and see if they need to go.

Even if your child is only making a little progress—such as being willing to stand in the stall while you go, but not ready to try to go yet, for example—keep practicing and being positive. Praise each effort.


Have Your Child Help Clean Up

If your child has an accident because they have refused to use a public restroom, make sure they are doing most of the clean-up. If you're not already doing this at home, start there.

Make sure they know this is their job ahead of time. This is not just a lesson in independence and responsibility, but a deterrent for future accidents. If kids are ready for and capable of potty training, then they are ready to clean up their own messes. But don't treat it like a punishment. It's just part of life.


Check Your Own Apprehension

Be aware of any signals you might be sending. If you're frantically spreading out seat protectors, spraying Lysol everywhere, bathing your children in hand sanitizer and constantly telling them not to touch anything, then they might be picking up on your own apprehension about public restrooms.

It's one thing to be safe and cautious, but it's another to be fearful and paranoid. Of course you want your kids to follow proper sanitary procedures, but for now, try to put aside any noticeable fear that might be affecting their comfort level with public restrooms.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lind J, Ghirlanda S, Enquist M. Social learning through associative processes: A computational theory. R Soc Open Sci. 2019;6(3):181777. doi:10.1098/rsos.181777

  2. KidsHealth from Nemours. Toilet training.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentials for parenting toddlers and Preschoolers: Quick tips.

  4. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2016. doi:10.17226/21868

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.