How to Manage a Potty-training Backslide

What to do when your nearly potty-trained kiddo goes on an underpants strike

Toddler eating yogurt while sat on a potty dressed as a bear

Peter Cade / Getty Images

The scenario is all too common. You've made it through a hellacious, yet ultimately successful, week of mopping up pee and (eventually) handing out rewards when said pee finally makes it in the potty. You can complete an entire Target trip without needing to change your child's clothes. Your toddler officially is potty-trained.

Then something big happens: Grandma and Grandpa come for a weekend visit; your kiddo gets sick; or mom or dad's work schedule changes. Suddenly this new excitement, sickness, routine, or uncertainty is just enough to upset the tenuous potty routine and send your head-strong toddler into a potty-training backslide. 

Here's the good news: You're not alone. Experts agree that potty training regression is not uncommon. The setback can be caused by a major life change or stress, or something as simple as clothing, said Whitney Parchman, who runs Joyful Day Montessori school in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park.

"If your child was wearing elastic-waisted pants during toileting, most likely they were able to pull them up and down when needed," Parchman said. "If they started wearing jeans it is MUCH more difficult for the child to remove their pants in time. As a result, they are more prone to accidents." 

Parchman's approach to "toilet learning" is to teach children to "listen to the signals their bodies are giving them."

"I don't reward children for using the potty successfully—other than verbal encouragement—because their sense of accomplishment is reward enough," she said. "In other words, the goal is that they are intrinsically motivated and not motivated by external factors, such as a piece of candy whenever they go."

But for the many parents who do reward or bribe their toddler with candy or stickers after a successful potty run, stopping the reward system too soon also could cause a backslide, said Ashley Hickey, potty training specialist and owner of Successful Potty Training, LLC.

Some parents are taking the reward element to a whole new level by throwing a potty party—complete with a decorated bathroom, presents, and cake—to get their toddlers’ training back on track and in the bathroom.

Hickey said she couldn't comment as to the success of these parties; however, "if the child is highly motivated by a party, then it's a great reward for learning the new skill."

So how should you approach getting your toddler back in the bathroom and on the potty?

Consistency is key.

"The caregiver must be consistent with routine in order to get the child back on track," Parchman said. "I usually advise parents to follow the same guidelines they did when their child first started using the toilet." 

This means that you should resist the urge to reach for diapers.

"[Going back to diapers] will only cause the process to be started all over again," Hickey said. "If you start and stop training, it will be confusing for the child and frustrating for the parent."

Parchman agrees.

"Disposable diapers disguise the sensation of wetness and the child is unable to feel the natural and uncomfortable consequence of having an accident," she said. 

Perhaps most importantly, don't equate a sudden uptick in accidents as a sign that your child wasn't ready to be potty trained.

A regression is just a minor setback," Parchman said. "If your child was successfully using the toilet before they can, and will, do it again."

Taking a few steps back in potty training can feel like starting from square one, but don't fret. Keep your cool and eventually, your toddler will get back on track.

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