Key Take aways:
- Regression can be a very normal (albeit frustrating) part of potty training.
- Children can regression at various stages during potty training, including when they have been completely independent for some time.
- Regression is often a response to some environmental or physical trigger that is causing your child to lose their progress with potty training.
- Addressing regression as soon as possible is the key to helping this be a short-lived hiccup.
article summary: Regression is when your child starts having regular accidents that may require them to start using a pull-up or diaper again. This circumstance can be tough on both you and your child. Usually, it means that your child was once doing quite well with potty training, or they were at least making some progress, and then all of a sudden, they lose traction and ground. While it is frustrating, it actually is a normal part of potty training. Yes, some children will never regress, but many children will regress at some point, and it's okay.
Regression can look like many different ways, including:
- Having accidents all of a sudden
- Refusing to use the potty
- Asking for pull-ups again
- Purposefully withholding poop and/or pee
It can also occur early on in potty training, or it can happen several months after your child is fully potty trained.
There are various reasons why regression may occur. Often, it is a clue that something is not quite right in your child's environment. Think about anything new that has happened in their life. For example, have they recently started school? Is there a new baby at home? Or perhaps is a sibling or work taking too much of your attention away from them (in their opinion)?
Aside from environmental factors, regression may occur due to physical changes as well. For example, illness and even changes in their bowel movements can cause them to lose ground. Also, if their diet has shifted or they are not getting enough rest or exercise, those factors may play a role in regression.
What is regression?
Regression occurs when a child who has demonstrated they are potty trained starts having frequent accidents. It is not necessarily considered regression if your child has an accident here or there (especially if they are ill or there is another reason it may have occurred like no access to a toilet, etc.). You usually know it is regression when your child needs to revert back to wearing a pull-up or a diaper because they are unable to keep themselves clean.
What causes children to regression?
There is no single cause that applies to every child who shows regression. Yet, one of the most common reasons children regress is because something in their environment has gone amiss. For example, many parents find that their previously potty-trained child may show regression when bringing a new baby home. Of course, it may not occur right away because things are exciting and fresh in the beginning. But, once they realize that baby is here to stay after a few months, regression can start to show up.
Likewise, regression also may occur if they are about to start school or have recently started. Some children may even regress if other factors in their environment are not quite right, including:
- Their parent or caregiver is stressed (work, finances, relationships, etc.)
- They do not have a consistent schedule, or their life is unpredictable
- Homelife is tough
- School is stressful
- They recently lost something that gave them comfort (like getting rid of a pacifier, etc).
Changes in health
Aside from stress, children may regress if they are unwell or their health has changed. It is not uncommon for children to lose traction with potty training if they become sick. Not feeling well can disrupt your child's whole routine, making it hard to stick with potty training. If being sick has caused your child to have accidents and it is a temporary illness, know that it may take a little time to get back in the swing of things, but it is usually a short-lived issue.
However, if your child is having frequent accidents because of diarrhea or (for lack of a better term) wet farts, it is high time to examine their diet and even consider an infection in their gut before thinking they are abandoning their potty skills.
Too easily distracted
Some children struggle to simultaneously process their bowel and bladder signals, along with everything else in their environment. For many children, this is just who they are, and they will be able to manage this with time and more development. However, other children may need more frequent reminders and mandatory breaks to stay consistent with using the bathroom.
If this is something new, it may be because you are not reminding them as frequently as when they first started potty training. After all, your child has shown that they are fully capable of going potty independently. But, staying consistent with reminders - even after they become potty professionals, can help children who are easily distracted stay on top of their potty game.
Afraid of the potty
Some children may develop a fear of using the potty, especially if they had a negative experience in the past. We know first hand some pretty scary tales of potty lids falling on boy's tenders or children slipping into the bowl or falling off the seat. And certainly, a particularly painful bout of constipation can make anyone afraid of the next time they need to poop (especially children, who may not trust that it will be more comfortable down the road).
Steps to regaining ground
Find out what is causing them to regress and find a solution.
You really can't solve a regression problem without knowing what is likely causing it. For example, if it happens that your older child has a new baby sibling and your attention is focused on the baby, helping them through the regression may simply be giving them a little more one-on-one time. Likewise, if your child is regressing because they struggle with constipation and are afraid to poop, you can help by improving their diet, increasing their hydration, or talking to their pediatrician, so that pooping becomes less of a problem.
Never punish or shame when they have an accident
Oy, this is easier said than done. When your child has successfully used the potty for several weeks or months (or even years), it is so hard to exercise patience and understanding when they start having recurring accidents.
Often, our first inclination is to be angry and upset, but that is not our role as our child's support person and advocate. Instead, our role is to help them through the accident, keep things upbeat, and demonstrate that we have complete faith in their abilities.
Go back to square one (or two)
When regression sticks around (which it often does if the cause is not quickly resolved), you may have to start all over again. That means you may have to revert to having a strict potty schedule where you set a timer, and you both go a sit on the potty while you play a game or read a book. For some children who withhold poop or pee, that may even mean going back to diapers or pull-ups to help them get back to having regular elimination habits.
Don't be afraid to meet your child where they are, and revisit some of your old techniques to help them re-master the potty. And, if you feel like your child is not regaining ground or are worried about their health, never hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician.
Positive reinforcement is key
All potty experts agree that some form of positive reinforcement can help children repeat healthy, desirable habits. Positive reinforcement may look like giving your child a big hug after they successfully use the potty, or it may mean giving them a few chocolate chips to acknowledge their efforts.
Likely, you gave your child lots of positive reinforcement when they started potty training. If your child is regressing, you will want to provide them with the same positive reinforcement as when they started - even though you know that they can do it. So, perhaps you will need to begin offering little treats for each effort, or even just verbally acknowledging how great they are doing can go a long way to making your child feel recognized and proud of their progress.
How you choose to praise your child is really up to you and what works best for your child.
If your child is struggling with regression and you are not sure where to turn, don't hesitate to connect with a potty expert to brainstorm ways to help your child get back on track.