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Why potty training regression happens, and how to get your child back on track

Sept. 10, 2019
Why potty training regression happens, and how to get your child back on track

Ask any veteran parent, and they’ll tell you: Potty training is no easy task. Regardless of how you go about it, toilet training rarely plays out without wet floors, dirty undies and a few stubborn standoffs. So once your child ditches the diapers, of course it’s cause for celebration. But what happens when they start having accidents more often than not?

Relax, it’s potty training regression, and while it’s frustrating, it’s usually short-lived and easy to steer back on track. Here are expert (and veteran mom!) tips for dealing with toddler potty training regression. 

Why does potty training regression happen?

The child isn’t ready

According to Dr. Nick DeBlasio, medical director of the Pediatric Primary Care Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the most common reason for potty training regression is a child being trained too early. 

“I see it in my practice all the time,” DeBlasio says. “After weeks or even months of doing well, kids slowly lose interest in the potty and start having accidents again. Usually the underlying reason for the potty regression is the parents were ready for the child to be potty trained, not the child.”

The reason kids often start out strong with toilet training, according to DeBlasio, is because 

it’s something new and exciting, and they’re eager to please their parents. But, depending on the child, the novelty wears off in time and making it to the potty becomes less of a priority. 

“The key to a child being successfully potty trained is that the child is self-motivated, not parent-motivated,” he says.

In other words, your child is using the potty because they want to, not because mom and dad do a happy dance or give them a few stickers. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, being emotionally — not just physically — ready for potty training is key. In addition to the verbal and physical skills needed to use the bathroom, “the emotional urge toward independence and self-mastery” is a must. 

Change in routine or traumatic event

Another cause for toddler potty training regression is a sudden change in routine or the experience of a traumatic event. 

“Regressions can happen when something in a child's life causes them emotional stress,” says Allison Jandu, a potty training consultant and author of “The Poop Puzzle: What to Do If Your Child Will Not Poop on the Potty.” “Moving to a new home, changing schools, divorce, a new sibling can all cause a child to regress.” 

Jandu also notes that, while some changes are obvious, the stress can occasionally stem from something seemingly so insignificant to parents — such as rearranging their bedroom or changing the route you normally take to school — that the real reason behind the regression is never discovered. 

“Children can perceive having accidents as a way to get extra attention from the adults in their life, which, in turn, brings comfort to their stress,” she says. 

In some cases, potty training regression can be due to an underlying medical condition. (More on this later…)

“If you suspect the regression could be a result of an illness or other medical problem, always get your child checked out by their doctor,” says Jandu.

What you can do to get your child back on track

If your child has been having accidents more often than you’d like, there are a number of ways to help get them back on the potty. 

Get to the root of the problem

As with all things in life, figuring out the root cause is key to tackling the problem when it comes to potty training regression. 

“Deal with the underlying issue when your child regresses,” says DeBlasio. “For example, if a child is regressing because of a new sibling, spend individual time with the child and make him or her a part of the new baby’s routine.” 

In these circumstances, DeBlasio notes that it’s important to not make a big deal of the regression or make the child feel bad in any way. So scolding, shaming or joking at their expense are all out of the question. 

“Remember, this is not intentional,” he says.

Offer support

Once you’ve figured out the cause of your child’s regression (and even if you haven’t), lend a supportive ear. 

“If you’ve discovered why your child regressed, create an open line of communication,” says Jandu. “Ask them questions about how they're feeling, and then listen — really listen — to their responses. Use phrases like, ‘I understand why you feel that way’ and ‘I have felt that way before, too.’ If a child feels heard and understood, it will help them heal and feel less stressed.”

Stay consistent

“When your child regresses, it’s really important to maintain consistency while offering a lot of patience and understanding,” says Jandu. “Just don’t go back to diapers. Children find comfort in consistency, so making that change could cause even more stress for them.” 

Prompt more often

Just because your child was on a killer streak of using the toilet unprompted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear just yet.

“Sometimes kids start having accidents again because they’re holding their urine for too long,” says DeBlasio. “They get preoccupied with other things and overestimate their bladder capacity. By the time they realize they need to go, it’s too late. In these situations, it’s best to keep track of when they last went and remind them to use the potty when enough time has passed.”

Devise a reward system

Rewards can be a controversial topic with parents, but for some moms and dads — and their kids — it works. The key is knowing how your particular child is motivated. 

“Depending on how your child responds to incentives, offering rewards, such as stickers or small toys, for appropriate potty behavior can be helpful,” says Jandu. 

On the flip side, some experts advise against using rewards, as it can create a cycle where kids expect to be rewarded for everything. Again, knowing your child is crucial. 

“We started a pom pom jar for my son when he regressed after being potty trained,” says Jaclyn Santos, of Hazlet, New Jersey. “Every time he made it to the potty, we put a colorful pom pom in the jar. When he filled it, he got to pick out a small toy. After filling it once, he never regressed again.” 

Stay positive

According to Jandu, most regressions resolve themselves within two weeks. In the interim, try to keep things in perspective — as well as your cool. 

“When my first child seemed to be going backwards with his potty training, I freaked out — and I’m sure he picked up on my nervous energy,” says Heather Tufaro, from New York. “It took us a good few weeks before we were back on track. With my second, I barely batted an eyelash when she started having accidents, and sure enough, she was back on the potty in no time.” 

Speak with a doctor

To be safe, if your child starts having accidents often, you may want to book an appointment with your child’s pediatrician.

“When I hear about a child having some potty training regression, I recommend that they be seen by their pediatrician,” says DeBlasio. “It’s important to rule out any underlying medical causes, and explore any psychological issues, as well.”

A few medical issues that can cause potty training regression are:

  • Diabetes. Type 1 diabetes can cause increased urination in children.

  • Constipation. Sometimes children can develop encopresis if they’re constipated and avoid going to the bathroom out of fear that it will be painful. 

  • Urinary tract infections (UTI). UTIs, which are more common in girls than boys, can cause both an increase in urination, as well as pain while urinating. Sometimes, a child may not even know they’re going.  

Potty training regression is never fun. You thought you were done with diapers and accidents, and here you go again! But with a cool head, a listening ear and some time, your little one will be back to dry undies before you know it. 

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