What to Do When Your Potty-Trained Child Starts Having Accidents Again

Mom helping toddler on the toilet

AleksandarNakic / Getty Images

Potty training was easy for Donna Gleize's daughter, Agathe. The process went quickly and smoothly, and Donna, a mom of four living in County Cork, Ireland, was relieved that her daughter trained in time for preschool. But when Donna gave birth to another child, the accidents started. Lots of them.

Donna didn't know what to do at first. It didn't seem to make sense that her perfectly-trained daughter, who was even night-trained, was suddenly unable to control her bladder.

After talking to other parents, Donna realized that the birth of her second child was most likely the cause of Agathe's regression. Agathe was having difficulty adjusting to sharing her mama with someone else, who always seemed to need her. "Seeing a baby get all this attention, she wanted some herself," Donna explains. "She could perhaps see how diaper-changing is a great bonding moment between parent and baby."

Donna decided to address the root of the issue and find a way to give Agathe some one-on-one attention every day. This was challenging with a newborn in her care, but it did help. "I made a conscious decision to spend more quality time with Agathe," she said. "After everyone else went to bed, I would read Agathe a book, just the two of us on the sofa." After a week or so of consistently implementing special time for just Donna and Agatha, the accidents stopped completely.

There are many possible reasons why a full potty-trained child may suddenly regress, and a new baby in the family is a common culprit. Many toddlers go through a period of time where they seem to go backward with toilet independence. This is normal, and you can help your child get back on track. "Potty training regression is a normal part of potty training and temporary," says Norma Perez, MD, a pediatrician with AltaMed Health Services and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Parents can help their children manage this challenging time by approaching the situation with positive parenting," she says.

What Is a Potty Training Regression?

If you wrap up potty training and later on you see accidents or reluctance to be toilet-independent, that's a regression. Along with accidents, you may see things like resistance to use the toilet or your child may even ask to wear diapers again.

What Causes a Potty Training Regression?

Big changes in a child's life or routine tend to be the catalyst for potty training regressions. There are many possible life disruptions that can affect a toddler's toilet independence.

"Changes in the life of a child can lead to regression include events such as a new childcare routine, birth of a new sibling, or moving to a new home," notes Dr. Perez. "Stressful situations such as a major illness of the child or family member, a conflict between parents, divorce, or the death of a family member can also lead to potty-training regression."

Toddlers will often deal with major life changes by testing limits. They may purposely wet their pants to see whether the household rules stand when everything else seems to be changing. This is their way of checking to see that they are still safe and secure.

Accidents may also be a way to get parents' attention when something else, like a new baby or a stay-at-home parent returning to full-time work, seems to take all of it. Peeing in their pants is a sure way to get interaction from an adult who is otherwise too busy.

"When I started working part-time from home, [my daughter] Vera didn't like that she stayed with her nanny while I was behind the closed office door," says Nikola Price, a San Francisco-based mom of one. "It was around this time that she started asking for a diaper and refusing to poop without one. She also had a lot of pee accidents, despite having trained about six months prior."

Sometimes, regressions can indicate a problem, such as constipation or a urinary tract infection. Always reach out to your pediatrician if you are not sure the cause of a potty training regression or if you are concerned that something may be wrong.

Safety Warning

Potty accidents after a child is trained are considered a possible warning sign of sexual abuse. Other possible signs include trouble sleeping at night or having new words for body parts. If you notice any significant change in your child's behavior, it might be worth consulting your healthcare provider.

When Do Regressions Happen and How Long Do They Last?

Regressions occur during the toddler or preschool years. They tend to be tied to life events rather than a specific age. They can also be related to cognitive leaps, when toddlers gain the ability to wonder what would happen if they break a rule.

The duration of a regression may depend on how the parents handle it, notes Andrea Olson, MA, the author of four potty training books and director of the Go Diaper Free Certified Coach Training Program. For example, a toddler who asks for diapers and is given them may revert back to habitually peeing in their diaper for a length of time. Additionally, a child who is in need of extra attention and gets it by having lots of accidents may continue to meet their needs in this way. This may be true even if the attention is negative, such as scolding.

On the other hand, if parents maintain their expectations for their toddler's toileting practices while also addressing any root causes, a regression may resolve rather quickly.

Should My Kid Go Back to Diapers?

If your child regresses significantly, you may wonder if they should go back to diapers. While this is always an individual decision, bear in mind that putting your child back in diapers can send the message that toilet independence is optional. "If you go back to diapers, you're going to have to start all over and it's going to be even harder and also more confusing," cautions Olson. "Act as though you could never buy another diaper. What would you do? You would figure it out. You would work with your toddler."

If you find that you just can't deal with accidents in your home and car, or if your childcare provider is insisting upon diapers, you may feel stuck. "Instead of going back to diapers, consider using washable training pants," suggests Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best. Training pants can be pulled up and down, allowing kids to use the bathroom when they want to, and the cloth feels similar to underwear while on. But they also provide some protection if your child has an accident.

Tips for Dealing With Potty Training Regressions

Regressions can be frustrating for parents. It can be difficult to accept that a child who was perfectly trained last week is now having accidents multiple times per day. Keep in mind that this kind of nonlinear progress can be normal for toddlers—two steps forward, one step back. Try to be patient with both your child and yourself.

Here are some ideas to help you get your child back on track to being toilet-independent.

Address the Root Cause

Behavior is communication. If you can see a connection between a potty-training regression and a life event that's taking your time and attention away from your child, put yourself in their shoes. They may need you to help remind them that they are still a special part of your life.

Try scheduling some non-negotiable one-on-one time with your child every day, like Donna did. Try to be very consistent, even if it's just a few minutes per day. If you have other children, enlist the help of your partner, or do this after the baby's bedtime. Alternatively, Olson suggests finding an age-appropriate way for your toddler to help out with the baby.

Use Natural Consequences

Although punishment should be avoided during potty training, there are some natural consequences to having an accident that you can use to your advantage. Price found that Vera's accidents and toilet refusal stopped shortly after both mom and nanny made a plan to involve Vera in cleaning herself up and changing her pants. "We helped to make sure she was actually clean and bathed her nightly so I wasn't worried about that part," notes Price. "Plus, it was so worth it when the accidents stopped after a few days."

Use Positive Reinforcement

Praise and positive reinforcement are encouraging to children (along with adults). Staying calm and focusing on what your child does right may gently guide them back on track from a regression. "Praising your child when they do use the potty will positively reinforce the potty training behavior and get your child back on track," says Dr. Perez.

Lovingly Maintain Expectations

It's easy to panic when your formerly toilet-independent toddler suddenly starts wetting their pants again. Instead, try to stay calm and maintain your expectations.

Limit-testing often plays a role in potty-training regressions. It's important to understand that toddlers test limits because they want to know if they can really trust you to keep them safe and secure.

If your child cries for a diaper or absolutely refuses to use the toilet, you may be tempted to tell them that it's OK or give them the diaper. But keep in mind—your child is potty trained. They have the skills, they are just experiencing a setback. Gently guide them back on track by reminding them of the acceptable place to relieve themselves. "Do you want your child to go along with your guidance as a parent, or do you want them to be in charge?" says Olson. "This is a serious question and one that should be considered when thinking about [how to address] a regression."

Reteach

Sometimes fixing a regression is as simple as going back and retraining. You may feel like your child should already know what to do, since they've been successfully trained, but development is not always linear. If you see your child taking two steps forward and one back, go ahead and meet them where they're at. "If you end up doing an entire potty training experience once more through, and it will probably be very rapid versus the first one you did," notes Olson.

Don't assume your child doesn't need reminders just because they are trained. "Gently remind your child about going potty," says Dr. Poinsett. "This is especially true if your child gets distracted while playing and doesn't remember to go potty. Make it a matter of fact to put your child on the toilet or potty at regular intervals during the day, upon awakening, after drinking large amounts of liquids, after meals, and at bedtime."

Once things are back on track, keep up the reminders too, at least sometimes. "It's OK to prompt," says Olson, "It doesn't mean that your child is not potty trained. You will be prompting them up to when they are teenagers and you're about to go on a road trip and everybody needs to go potty before they leave."

A Word From Verywell

Potty training regressions are normal and they won't last forever. If your child regresses, you haven't done anything wrong. Try to figure out the root cause of a regression so you can work to resolve it. In some cases, you will just need to wait it out. Always reach out to your healthcare provider if you can't pin down a reason for a potty training regression or you think something could be wrong.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Emotional Issues and Bathroom Problems.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Problematic Toilet Behaviors.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Daytime Accidents and Bladder Control Problems: Voiding Dysfunction Explained.

  4. Moore R. An Ugly Truth: Know the signs of sexual abuse of children. It affects all areas of their lives, including language development. Leader. 2016;21(1):4-6. doi: 10.1044/leader.FMP.21012016.4.

  5. Creating a Toilet Training Plan. American Academy of Pediatrics. Updated November 2009.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR Family and Scary Mommy, among others.