How to Handle Potty Training Regression

Young girl sitting on toilet with her feet on a stool

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It is not unusual for younger children to have setbacks with potty training. In fact, many children aren't fully toilet trained by age 3, especially for bowel movements. Still, potty training regression is frustrating for parents. Remember that it is normal, common, and temporary.

Causes of Potty Training Regression

Sometimes, regression is simply due to distraction, or an unwillingness to give up a toy or activity. Your child might be waiting until the last minute to go and doesn't make it to the bathroom in time. Many children don't want to take a break from playing to go to the bathroom.

Stress and Other Emotional Setbacks

Stress is a common cause of regressions in potty training. Changes like starting school or changing classrooms or teachers could trigger a regression. Changes at home, such as a new baby, a new home, or a divorce, can also commonly cause regressions. Or if your child had an accident at school or somewhere else in public and felt shamed, they might regress in their potty progress.

Constipation and Other Physical Issues

If your child seems constipated and is having large, hard, or very firm bowel movements, then you may need to address that problem before working on potty training again. Children with constipation can have painful bowel movements that make them afraid to go on the potty or toilet.

If untreated, these children can begin to hold their bowel movements for so long that they eventually can't tell when they have to go and have stooling accidents. This is called encopresis and is often confused with potty training refusal.

Urinary tract infections or intestinal bugs may also scare a child away from the potty for a time.

What to Do About Potty Training Regression

If it's a medical issue, get advice from your pediatrician. Otherwise, If your child is distracted or working through another change, such as a new sibling, these steps may help.

Provide a Regular Schedule

Set up a simple potty schedule, or remind your child to go every 2 or 3 hours. Try having them sit on the potty for 4 to 5 minutes when they wake up and after meals. Those are times when most children are likely to have a bowel movement. Offer praise and extra attention simply for trying.

This is likely not a time to go back to diapers or pull-ups. Avoid this along with anything else that makes your child feel ashamed for having accidents.

Keep Cool When Accidents Happen

Treat accidents lightly. That means cleaning them up in a calm, matter-of-fact way, without punishment. As Vicki Lansky says in her book Toilet Training: A Practical Guide to Daytime and Nighttime Training, don't overreact to accidents.

You want to be careful that you don't reinforce this behavior, and negative attention will do that. You also want to avoid power struggles.

Read and Reward

A reward chart for the days when your child doesn't have an accident can be helpful, as you can reading some of the potty training books for children. Keep reminding your child (and yourself) that they can do this. Eventually, they will.

3 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. Regression.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Constipation in children.

  3. Olaru C, Diaconescu S, Trandafir L, et al. Chronic functional constipation and encopresis in children in relationship with the psychosocial environmentGastroenterol Res Pract. 2016;2016:7828576. doi:10.1155/2016/7828576

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.