It’s one of the most frustrating aspects of potty training: Your toddler has been in underwear for weeks when suddenly they begin to have accidents. Having multiple accidents or refusing to use the toilet after having successfully finished potty training is called “regression,” says Dr. Charles Shubin.
What Triggers Potty Training Regression?
- Starting too young: New research shows that pushing the potty training process too early is linked to a higher risk of constipation and other potty problems.
- Take our potty training readiness quiz to help recognize some signs that your child is ready to start the potty process.
- Growing family: Experts say another major reason for regression is the addition of a new brother or sister to the family.
- “The sibling rivalry that ensues motivates the older child to act more like the baby to get the attention back [that] the baby has taken away,” Dr. Shubin says. “Attention-getting is frequently the basis for regression, even without the arrival of a new sibling.”
- Confusing regressive behavior with bedwetting: Many parents often think that once daytime potty training is successful, a similar process can be taught to prevent bedwetting. This is, however, untrue. Nighttime dryness occurs when the bladder grows sufficiently in size and its nerve signals to and from the brain mature. The brain/bladder connection may take many years to develop and varies among individuals.
- “Dry nights come with time and patience, and attempting to train your child out of bedwetting will only create unnecessary stress,” notes Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, M.D.
- Psychological factors: Little things can add up quickly to get your child stressed about toddler potty training and cause toddler regression.
- “An abrupt change in routine — starting at daycare, welcoming a new baby into the home or any other major life change — will throw the little one’s mind and body out of whack,” says Michelle LaRowe, mother of two and editor of eNannySource.com. “Having an unpleasant experience using the toilet, such as a painful bowel movement, or being teased or disciplined for an accident at daycare also could be the cause. Some older children don’t want to take a break from playing and end up getting to the potty too late.”
- Health issues: Another possible cause for regression could be an infection or chronic constipation.
- “A urinary tract infection can make it difficult and painful to control the bladder, so this can manifest as regression,” says Dr. Cara Familian Natterson, a pediatrician from Los Angeles, CA.
- Always consult an experienced doctor if you notice any potential medical issues with your child.
- If your child has turned 4 and you’re not making any progress, this is a signal that it’s time to call in the potty professionals. Don’t be afraid of asking for assistance — your doctor, nurse or child development specialist can really help.
Getting Your Toddler Back on Track
- Take a break from potty training: Allow a two- to four-week break before you start to mention the potty again after a setback. This is the time to take off all the pressure, which will allow your child’s own natural desire to learn to use the potty emerge again.
- When setbacks happen don’t think of them as “potty training accidents.” Learn to expect them and be sure to teach your child that the control is in THEIR hands.
- Go back to the potty training basics: Dr. Shubin advises getting back to the basics in order to get back on track with potty training. “Return to the basics of behavior modification: clear expectations, clear responses to the expectations being met (rewards, especially attention) and clear responses to the expectations not being met (ignoring the unacceptable behavior).”
- Positive reinforcement: Dr. Natterson says positive reinforcement is key. And she’s quick to point out that negative reinforcement can have a bad effect on your child’s progress. She notes, “If your child suddenly gets lots of attention for accidents or regressing to a diaper, he may become invested in that behavior. Sure, he would like positive attention, but he will take negative attention over being ignored.”
- Make potty training fun: LaRowe says reading books to your child about potty training will offer additional positive reinforcement. She also recommends starting a reward or sticker chart that will visually show your child’s progress and allow them to take pride in daily accomplishments.
- “Get back on track by sitting on the potty during regularly scheduled times as part of your daily routine, every three or so hours,” LaRowe says. “You can also try to catch him when he looks like he needs to use the potty, remind him to use the potty when he’s playing and provide lots of positive, purposeful praise during this time of getting back on track.”