Toddler Regression During Potty Training

How to Manage a Potty Training Backslide

Rear view of a dark-haired girl toddler wearing trainer pants sitting on floor, surrounded by toys

Ruth Jenkinson / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Sometimes, children initially progress through potty training with ease and confidence. Then, all of a sudden, they start having accidents again. This experience is called potty training regression—and it's a normal part of toilet learning for many kids. There are many reasons children regress during potty training, and thankfully there are just as many steps you can take to get through it.

Why Regression Happens

A significant event such as the birth of a new sibling, a divorce or separation, or a natural disaster (like a forest fire or pandemic) can set your child back in potty training. But it's also possible for changes like illness, traveling, a change in classrooms or teachers at school or daycare, or merely a shift in routine to cause a potty-training backslide.

Often, the best course of action in these situations is for you to help your child relax—and try again. Consistency is key. It's important that you remain attentive and positive when you interact with them about toilet training. Negative attention for having accidents can cause children to feel shame, embarrassment, and frustration, which may entrench the regression (and make your child feel bad) rather than help the child get past it. In time, with your help and support, your child will get back on track.

Regression Is Natural

Learning new skills isn't a linear process. Both children and adults learn new skills in a zigzag pattern of progress and regression. Mistakes are part of learning. Another thing that occurs frequently—though is sometimes overlooked with potty training toddlers—is a natural regression that comes from having mastered a skill.

When they were a baby, you may have noticed that your child moved with fierce determination to learn to roll over, crawl, or stand unassisted. After gaining this control, some children might turn their attention to other skills with the same determination, leaving the old skill behind.

Once their focus shifts, they may be less proficient at the skill they recently attained. The same process can occur with potty training, particularly if attention from parents and caregivers has shifted elsewhere as well.

Kids May Still Need Support

Your vigilance in regularly getting your child to the bathroom in time may naturally have waned once you felt your child had mastered potty training. If this is the case, it may mean that your child isn't entirely in control yet and was relying on your reminders and support more than you were aware. (Sometimes, especially with very young potty training "successes," the parent is more in tune with when the child needs to go than the child.)

Be sure that your child is actually ready for potty training, as there is a big range in readiness from around as early as 18 months to well past 3 years old. Your child needs to be able to feel when they need to go. Plus, the child (and their parents) need to be interested and willing participants in the process—and have ready access to a bathroom.

Keep It Positive

If you suspect that life events may be to blame for your child's regression, consider how your response can help support your child. If a stressful situation is enough to cause regression, you don't want to add any more stress by punishing your child or expressing disappointment when they have accidents. Offering your child support, smiles, and encouragement rather than blame or anger is the best way to help them regain confidence.

If your child gets too much negative feedback, they may feel like giving up or be angry with themselves (or their parents). Sometimes, this can start a power struggle over using the bathroom, creating a conflict that no one wins.

Instead of getting frustrated, heap on the praise for their efforts. Use empathy and patience to connect with your child and let them know you're on their side and proud of them regardless of whether they always keep their underpants dry.

Resume Frequent Reminders

The best way to get your child back on track is to resume regular potty breaks. You can help your child by reminding them frequently to use the potty. Ask your child to try to use the restroom every few hours and right before leaving the house, even if they don't think they need to go.

You may find that your child is having accidents when they're in the process of focusing on something else, like learning how to put together a complicated puzzle or using their tricycle. Your child may be too busy figuring out another important part of their world to pay attention to their body's cues signaling it's time for a potty break.

A child who says "no" when asked if they need to use the potty may not mean "I don't need to go," but rather, "I don't want to be interrupted right now."

Show your child that you understand the importance of the activity they are involved in. Use phrases like, "I know you're very busy right now," "I can see you almost have that worked out," and "You're working very hard on that (picture/building/puzzle)." Once you've acknowledged your child's focus, remind them of the importance of staying dry and using the potty as you gently guide them to the bathroom.

Peers Affect Potty Training

Children may also have a fear of leaving their activity or missing out on group play. This is especially likely for children with siblings or those in a playgroup or other group setting.

A child may not want to leave a toy or activity for fear that it will be gone, destroyed, or taken by another child by the time they return from using the potty. Additionally, they may be having so much fun playing with other kids and be so socially stimulated that they really may not notice that they need to go.

In these situations, reassure your child that you will save or watch over the toy or activity until they return (and be sure to follow through on this promise). Encourage your child to ask you to do this each time they need to go potty. Remind them that they can resume their fun once they return from the bathroom.

A Word From Verywell

Potty training setbacks are frustrating for parents and children alike. It's important to know that this is very common, and for many kids, regression in toilet training is simply part of the process. Trust that eventually, your child will be fully potty trained. Until then, give them the patience, understanding, and encouragement they need to work on this important life skill.

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