Potty training is a significant milestone in any child's development, marking their transition from diapers to using the toilet independently. It is a significant milestone and you've celebrated your success, when suddenly, you hit a bump in the road and your child starts to regress.
We know this can be a stressful time and can assure you that it is normal! Below, we cover some of the causes, as well as what to do if it happens to your toddler.
What is potty training regression?
Potty training regression refers to a temporary step backward in a child's progress with using the toilet after they have already been successfully potty trained. This regression can manifest as accidents, wetting or soiling themselves, and a general resistance to using the toilet despite previously having mastered the skill.
Is it normal?
Yes, potty training regressions are perfectly normal. While there are many causes, regressions are most commonly a response to stress in a toddler’s life – for example, if your toddler has been at home with you and is now going to daycare, it’s not uncommon for them to regress.
What causes potty training regressions?
The most common reason for regression is a sudden change in the environment or status quo. This could include travel, moving, changing or joining a daycare, changes in the family dynamic, outside visitors, teething, sickness, or other disruptions to the status quo.
Other causes of daytime accidents include:
Fatigue: Fatigue could cause your toddler to regress since their brain is not “firing on all cylinders” as it would be when they are full of energy.
Distraction: Getting wrapped up in their activities and forgetting to use the potty.
Constipation: Accidents during the day could be a sign of constipation. Full bowels may be putting pressure on the bladder, causing wetting accidents.
Fear: Some children might have fear or anxiety around using the toilet. For example, they might be afraid of loud flushing sounds (such as in public restrooms), falling in, or even potty monsters. If this is the case, be patient and try to understand what exactly is causing them to be afraid.
Illness: Being unwell might cause a child to ignore toilet cues or be unable to make it to the bathroom in time.
Inconsistent Reinforcement: If parents or caregivers become less consistent in their praise and reinforcement of toilet use, a child might revert to previous habits.
New Interests: Children can become so engrossed in new activities that they forget to listen to their body's signals.
Asserting Independence: Some children view using the toilet as a sign of growing up. In resisting it, they might be asserting their independence.
Is this potty training regression or just a few accidents?
It’s normal for most children to have accidents from time to time, even after being potty trained. As a parent, you may feel frustrated when this happens, wondering if they’re doing it for attention or some other reason, but remember, more often than not, children will have accidents even after they’re fully potty trained.
How can you tell the difference between accidents and regression, though? If they’re still using the potty at key intervals – such as in the morning, before a trip in the car, or before bed – but have an accident every once in a while, these are just accidents.
However, if your toddler has multiple accidents over subsequent days or refuses to use the potty, this is most likely a regression issue. According to Dr. Scott J. Goldstein, “a truly potty-trained child should want to go on the potty. So a child who has several accidents every day and doesn't seem to care about them should not really be considered potty trained.” If this is the case, wait a few weeks before trying again. The information might sit with them better the second time around, and your child may be more prepared for this new phase.
How to handle potty training regression
Let us be the first to tell you, you’ve got this. You’ve already taken your child through potty training once, and handling regression is just a matter of going back to the basics. For children who have regressed due to stress, we suggest waiting a week or two or for things to become steady in the toddler’s life again before you start this process. For the rest, you can get started right away.
Stay calm and comforting
Your child is a sponge to your emotions, so make sure you’re staying patient around them. We understand that the process is frustrating, and you just want it to be over. That’s normal! But when you’re around your child, the best thing you can do is approach them with love, support, and patience.
Talk to your child and try to understand what you can do to help them. Although they might not have the vocabulary to describe what they’re going through, ask them a few questions about their experience to see if there’s anything you can do to support them. You should also include them in your plans to re-train. Let them know how important this is to you and that it’s good for them. Ask them if they’d rather wear diapers again or if they want to keep wearing big kid underwear, then explain that this means they’ll have to start using the potty more often.
If you suspect they’ve forgotten the potty training basics, it’s a good practice to start prompting them to use it again. For example, they might be distracted, too involved with their toys or activities, or they could be nervous about speaking up when they need to use the toilet. It’s a good idea to prompt them every two hours or so and at other key intervals throughout the day (morning and nighttime, before trips in the car, before meals).
Make it easy
Place the potty in an easy-to-use zone, and make sure their clothing is easy to take on and off. As adults, the foundation to building good habits is to make the activity obvious and to remove as many barriers as possible. The same is true for children learning (or re-learning) activities.
Use positive reinforcement
Use a reward system or give them praise when they use the potty. If it helped them the first time, this tactic could help them learn to use the potty again. Let them know how proud you are, and when they start to get the hang of potty training, keep up the encouraging behaviour from time to time. Another good idea is to start praising them for other behaviours as they learn to potty train, or to implement a reward system for staying dry. This way, they don’t “learn” that regression is a means to get praise and rewards. Instead, staying dry is what gives them that love and attention they crave.
Potty training is hard work, so when your toddler regresses, we understand that you’re ready to call it quits. If you notice an increase in accidents, give your toddler more frequent reminders to use the potty. However, if you suspect you’re both getting frustrated, take a break for your sake and theirs. Then, resume the process when you and your toddler are ready to make a successful go at potty training again. You can also read our 'At What Ages Does Bedwetting Stop?' post for more insights.
When to seek help
In most cases, potty training regression is a temporary setback that can be managed at home. However, if the regression is causing significant stress for both you and your child, or if it persists for an extended period, it might be helpful to consult a pediatrician or child development expert. They can provide tailored advice based on your child's specific situation.
As this process unfolds, it helps to keep a bedwetting mat on hand – use it on the couch, in the playroom, and on any other surface that they’re staying for a prolonged period. PeapodMats' machine-washable leakproof mat is an easy fix to keep furniture and other surfaces dry, even after accidents. See it for yourself!