Is your potty-trained child suddenly having accidents? Find out why potty training regression happens and how to avoid it.

By Dina Roth Port
Updated September 21, 2020
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Potty training is hard work, and parents often breathe a sigh of relief when their child finally ditches the diapers. But what if they suddenly start having accidents again? As it turns out, "it’s 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. Keep reading to learn why a child might take a few steps backward, and what parents can do about potty training regression.

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What Causes Potty Training Regression?

Regression happens when a potty-trained child starts having regular accidents, which might necessitate going back to diapers. But while the set-back can be frustrating, it’s also completely normal, and it can usually be fixed by figuring out the cause.

"Try to identify the reasons for the regression, as addressing them will help the child return to where she was," explains 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.  Here are some of the possible causes of potty training regression.

Your child wasn’t actually potty trained. Start by asking yourself whether your child was really potty trained in the first place. "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,'" says Dr. Goldstein. If you think you might’ve potty trained too early, talk to your pediatrician about the best timing.

They feel stressed. 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.

Your child has health issues. Medical issues can also cause potty training regression—and constipation is a common one. If a child has difficulty with bowel movements, they might steer clear of the potty altogether to avoid having to push and strain. Make sure they’re getting enough fiber and plenty of water, and consult your child's pediatrician if you're concerned.

They get distracted easily. Your child might be so involved in whatever they're doing that they ignore the urge to go. They don't have enough time to get to the bathroom once things gets moving.

They’re scared of the potty. Some kids have real anxiety about the toilet. They may worry they'll fall in, the flushing sound may scare them, or they might even fear a "toilet monster."

Note, however, that mishaps are common during the night, and they’re not necessarily a sign of potty training regression. "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 from daytime control." 

How to Deal With Potty Training Regression

Thankfully regression is often short-lived, and parents can get their child back on track within days or weeks. "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.  Follow these tips to combat potty training regression.

Never punish your child for accidents.

If your child has an accident, don't show disappointment; doing so can make your little one more anxious, which can lead to more potty problems. When you check to see if your child is dry, clap and cheer if they didn’t have an accident. If not, 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.

Give gentle reminders.

Often, accidents happen because a child is having too much fun playing or doing an activity, and they don't want to stop to run to the bathroom. To resolve this situation, explain that it's normal to forget to use the potty sometimes and reassure your child that they’re still a “big girl" or “big boy,” Dr. Goldstein says. "Then take them to the potty every few hours at home and ask their teachers to make sure they get 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 they first wake up, before meals, before bedtime, and immediately before you leave the house.

Try a reward system.

Give your child a few incentives to stay dry, especially if rewards worked the first time you potty trained them. For example, give your little one a sticker every day they don’t have an accident. After a few successful days in a row, you can give them a bigger treat, such as a trip to the ice cream store, a small toy, an extra few minutes of bedtime reading, etc.

Keep in mind that rewards don't work for every child and, in some cases, they can create as much anxiety as punishments. That's why the most effective rewards are often your words: "You're such a big girl!" or "You're so independent" can sometimes be the best incentive.

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