Potty-Training Regressions: What are they?  Why do they happen? And what can you do?

Congratulations! Your child is successfully potty-trained! They are out of diapers and Pull-ups, and things have been going great!  Until, out of nowhere—or so it seems—your child has started to have accidents again, and you’re not sure why.  You’re starting to feel frustrated, and your child may feel that way, too.  If that’s the case, your little one might be going through a potty-training regression.

What is a regression?

A potty-training regression is when a child who has been successfully potty-trained begins to have a regular occurrence of accidents again.   A typical regression can last anywhere from a couple of days to about two weeks.  If you ever have any concerns about your child’s overall health and development, you should always contact your child’s healthcare provider. 

Why do regressions occur?

Potty-training regressions are common throughout the potty-training process. Some common reasons a regression may occur include (but are not limited to) the following:

 

  • Pregnancy or birth of a new sibling

  • Change in your routine: new caregiver, school, travel, moving, etc.

  • Potty-training before your child shows signs of readiness

  • General change in family dynamics

  • Your child is sick

  • Possible underlying medical reason, such as constipation or a UTI

This happened to us!

For us, we experienced a potty training regression when our son was 35 months. He had been successfully potty-trained since we began the process 6 months prior when he started having accidents again.

Personally, I believe my son’s regression occurred because he wasn’t getting as much mommy attention as he was used to.  There was a two-week span where I was really sick on top of being 6-months pregnant.  I wasn’t able to run around with my son and play with him as much as both he and I would have liked.   However, if he pooped in his underwear, I would tend to him immediately.  He picked up on this quickly, and before I even realized it, we had slipped into a potty training regression.

What did we do?

First, it was important to my husband and I that we avoid using shaming phrases, such as: “You know better than this.”  We wanted to show our son support and reassurance if he had an accident. We used phrases such as, “You’re still learning,” or “Next time you have to go pee or poop, tell mommy ‘I need potty.’”  We said these phrases frequently and repetitively.

 

We also took a step back on providing him “reminders” of if he needed to use the potty such as, “Do you have to go potty?” Believe it or not, according to Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “Toilet Training Problems: Underachievers, refusers, and stool holders,” he discusses that providing reminders to your child can increase the power struggle and toileting resistance.

When he peed and pooped on the potty, after he was finished, we made a BIG deal out of it.  “You went poop on the potty!!!”  If my husband or I passed a bowel movement, we made a big deal of that in front of our son as well.  “I just went poop on the potty!!!” and my husband would give me a high five.

Second, if our son pooped in his underwear, we would dump the poop in the toilet and throw out his underwear in front of him.  We discussed how accidents happen, and in addition to using some of the phrases above, we told him he couldn’t wear the dirty underwear anymore. We also avoided using Pull-ups during the day and only continued with them at night. (Pro-tip: Using Pull-ups during the day, when you’re in a potty-training regression, can actually encourage more accidents!)  I also think that because he kept pooping in his favorite Paw Patrol underwear, and we weren’t replacing them, my son learned cause-and-effect: pooping in his favorite undies meant he couldn’t wear them anymore.

Thirdly, after a couple days, when my husband and I noticed things weren’t really getting back on track, we decided to do some role play and modeling with one of our son’s action figures.  Enter Woody from Toy Story. I changed my voice, used phrases I thought Woody would use, and got into “character.” For example, when my son peed/pooped on the potty, Woody would say something like, “Good job, partner!” or “Hip-Hip Hooray!”  Woody also asked questions about the bathroom routine, such as, “Oh you have to pull your pants down first?  What do you have to do next?”  By encouraging a conversation about the potty routine between Woody and my son, we were able to bring some fun into the situation. I noticed my son started to become excited about using the potty again. He even started talking directly to Woody on his own, saying things like,   “Woody, I need to pull down my underwear.”  “Woody, this is toilet paper.”   “Woody, I have to wash my hands.”

Lastly, I implemented some of the same potty-training techniques we initially used as a way to move through the regression.  We didn’t use a reward system when my son was initially potty-trained, so I decided not to use one during the regression either. With any skill-building activity, consistency is key! I want to keep the use of the toilet as a part of my son’s typical daily routine.

All in all, the regression lasted about two weeks total.

Conclusion

There are many reasons a potty-training regression might occur, and this period can be tough and a bit confusing for everyone. The best way to get through it is to set clear expectations about your child’s potty routine, stay consistent in your approach follow your child’s lead, and continue to be supportive and understanding.  Before long, your child’s potty habits should be back on track.

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