How to Deal With Potty Training Regression

Is your potty-trained child suddenly having accidents? Find out why potty regression is happening -- and how to avoid it.
Solve Potty-Training Problems
Solve Potty-Training Problems

Everything is moving along nicely: Your little one seems to have mastered potty training and you think you've said goodbye to diapers for good. But then, suddenly he starts having accidents again and you wonder what went wrong. We'll explain why a child might take a few steps backward when it comes to potty training, and what to do about it.

Make Sure It's a True Regression

Child playing with toilet paper

Rest assured that plenty of kids experience potty training regression -- it's completely normal. But ask yourself whether your child was really potty trained in the first place. "It is very common for occasional setbacks in the early days, months, or even years of potty training," says Scott J. Goldstein, M.D., a pediatrician at The Northwestern Children's Practice in Chicago. "But remember that a truly potty trained child should want to go on the potty. So a child who has several accidents every day and doesn't seem to care about [them] should not really be considered 'potty trained.'" So consider whether your child was ready to potty train. If he was, start looking for ways to get back on track. If not, talk to your pediatrician about when she thinks your child might be ready.

Don't Overreact

If your child has an accident, don't show disappointment; doing so can make your little one more anxious and that, in turn, can lead to more potty problems. "Despite the frustration of having to head back into accidents and diapers because of toilet-training regression, do everything you can to stay positive," says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a Parents advisor and pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. When you check to see if your child is dry, clap and cheer if she is. If she's not, just remain nonjudgmental and say, "Oops. You had an accident. Let's go sit on the potty." Remember to remain upbeat and never yell at or scold your child. "You want your children to feel empowered and not worry they're going to be punished if they make a mistake," explains Lisa Asta, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco.

Resolve the Root Causes

You're not going to stop the setbacks if you don't address the exact problem. "Try to identify the reasons for the regression, as addressing them will help the child return to where she was," says Mark Wolraich, M.D., Chief of the Section of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Director of the Child Study Center. For instance, many children start having accidents during times of transition that might cause stress, such as starting a new school or welcoming a new sibling. Chances are, once your lives settle down, your child will master potty training once again. But even if your child makes it through the day without accidents, she still may have mishaps at night. "Many kids are not dry at night for years after they are dry during the day," Dr. Goldstein says. "Nighttime and naptime control are very different than daytime control." Medical issues can also cause potty training regression, and constipation is a common one. If a child has difficulty having a bowel movement, she might steer clear of the potty altogether to avoid having to push and strain. Make sure your child is getting enough fiber and plenty of water, but if she's scared of pooping on the potty, play games or read books with her while she sits on the toilet to make it more fun.

Give Gentle Reminders to Go

Often, accidents happen because a child is having too much fun playing or doing an activity and just doesn't want to stop to run to the bathroom. To resolve this situation, explain that it is normal to forget to use the potty sometimes and reassure your child that she's still "a big girl," Dr. Goldstein says. "Then take her to the potty every few hours at home and ask her teachers to make sure she gets to the potty frequently. Simple, gentle reassurance and reminders to use the potty will get a child back on track." Encourage your child to at least try to use the potty when she first wakes up, before meals, before bedtime, and immediately before you leave the house.

Try Rewards -- to a Degree

Give your child a few incentives to stay dry, especially if such rewards worked the first time you potty trained him. Create a sticker chart and give your little one a sticker every day he doesn't have an accident. After a few successful days in a row, you can give him a treat such as a trip to the ice cream store or a small toy, or less typical rewards like granting 10 extra minutes of bedtime reading or letting him watch a short movie during breakfast. Keep in mind, though, that rewards don't work for every child and, in some cases, they can create as much anxiety as punishments might. That's why the best rewards are often your words: "You're such a big girl!" or "You're so independent" can sometimes be the best incentive.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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