What causes setbacks and what to do about them

One afternoon without any warning whatsoever, you’re standing in line in the grocery store and your four-year-old child without saying a word simply wets their pants. You are dumbfounded and shocked because they’ve been potty trained for quite some time now. Potty training regression is a thing. But what causes it? Why on earth would a child who has been potty trained suddenly begin to have potty training setbacks that appear to be occurring out of nowhere?

This article will address some of the causes of potty training regression and what you can do to avoid and correct potty training setbacks.

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Most children begin potty training somewhere on or around their third birthday and are typically fully potty trained by age 4. This of course is give or take a few months and highly variable by child, but typically speaking this is the case. If your child is been potty trained for a while and hasn’t had accidents in a very long time it can be quite shocking when they have a setback. You can be assured that they have not forgotten how to apply their potty training, but that there is some underlying cause that is affecting their behavior. As with older children, there are symptoms of underlying issues that will play out in a child’s behavior. Potty training setbacks or potty training regression can be a good sign to you as a parent that there is an issue that needs to be resolved for your child.

That’s not to say that there will never be accidents. But sometimes there is a series of accidents or a new set of behaviors that can be perplexing to parents. There’s no need to panic or become overly worried because there are things that you can do to help your child when they have potty training regression behaviors.

First of all, you need to understand the difference between potty training accidents and potty training regression.

Potty training accidents

Potty training accidents will happen during and around the time that you are potty training your child. It is common to have these accidents while your child is sleeping, if your child gets busy playing and forgets to go to the potty, or if perhaps they have consumed a lot of fluids and maybe are riding around in the car with you. Accidents are simply your child’s inability to get to the potty on time or a temporary forgetfulness when they are distracted from their potty training learning.

It is normal to get upset and frustrated over accidents but to be supportive, but it is important to be calm, to reiterate your child’s potty training lessons with them and reinforce the good behavior to encourage them on their potty training journey. Remember these accidents are just as frustrating, oftentimes, to your child as they are to you. They could be messy and annoying but accidents should become less and less problematic as your child gets older and as they learn and practice their potty training skills.

Potty training setbacks / Potty training regression

Potty training setbacks or potty training regression is very different than accidents. Although it can be just as frustrating for you as a parent, the reason behind potty training regression is very different from the reasoning behind potty training accidents. Potty training regression typically occurs after the child is fully potty trained, has had lots of practice, and has mastered the skill of potty training.  Then your child suddenly displays a behavior that is uncharacteristic of their mastery of potty training.

They may begin to hide and defecate in their pants. They may begin to suddenly refuse to use the toilet at all. Or they may begin asking to wear diapers again or express a longing for wearing diapers instead of their underwear. They may intentionally wet their pants rather than going to the bathroom. All of these behaviors can be quite baffling to you as a parent, but understand that there are reasons and you can do some things to help your child.

What to do for potty training regression

Causes of potty training regression

There are multiple reasons why your child may be regressing.

  • Sometimes a child gets involved in a new activity or a new toy and they just simply don’t want to stop what they are doing to go to the bathroom. They are avoiding something that is less fun to participate in something they would rather be doing. This is fairly normal behavior for small children and it isn’t anything to get super alarmed about. You simply need to raise your level of encouragement for potty training. Perhaps provide some incentives for them to continue trying to do their best in regards to their potty training. Perhaps playing with the toy can be the reward for potty training if you identify a certain toy that seems to be the problem.
  • Sometimes when a child gets constipated it can cause them to begin practicing avoidance when it comes to using the toilet. They do not understand that even if they use the bathroom in their pants they are still taking a risk of having a painful bowel movement. They don’t make the connection so they avoid going to the toilet hoping to avoid any discomfort when they are using the bathroom. If you suspect that constipation could be a part of your child’s problem, you can call their doctor and discuss it with them and come up with some things you can do to alleviate their symptoms to improve not only how they are feeling but also how they are performing in their potty training.
  • One of the biggest causes of potty training regression is stress. What you may think of as stress may not necessarily be the trigger for your child. Even good things can bring about great stress for your child. It’s probably best to ask yourself if there have there been any major changes for your child recently? Perhaps there’s a new baby in the home? A new pet? Or maybe your child has changed bedrooms or changed daycares or maybe a person has moved out of your home. There are so many different things that seem normal to you but are really big stressors for a small child. It could be something as simple as Christmas is coming and there’s a lot of hub-bub around the house and extra noise and they aren’t getting the rest that they normally do. All of these things can cause great stress to a small child and cause them to have regression in their potty training. Often times when there is potty training regression, there is underlying stress that your child is not processing well. If you can identify what that stressor is, it is possible that you may be able to alleviate some of the stress that your child is under.

What to do

The first thing you need to do is to identify why your child is regressing. You want to start with the more simple and easily eliminated factors such as avoidance because they want to do something else instead. If you can determine there is a certain activity or a certain circumstance that your child always seems to be having their accidents, then you may be able to put your finger on exactly what the problem is, for example, a new toy that they won’t leave alone long enough to go to the bathroom.

You may alter the times your child is allowed to play with that particular toy so it doesn’t coincide with potty times. Or you can use the toy as an incentive for going to the potty. Work with your child to further encourage their potty training and offer more praise than you normally do to encourage them to continue their potty training practice.

Make it fun again. Start a new party chart or bring out what worked in the beginning when they first started potty training. What made them excited about potty training? Revive those practices and try to eliminate the toy that’s causing the problem during times when it is most problematic.

Secondly, you need to rule out any biological reasons your child is avoiding going to the bathroom. Your child may not be able to communicate that they are feeling constipated. You might be able to tell by the way that they struggle or strain to go to the bathroom. But if it’s hard to tell you can always take them in for a quick doctor visit. The doctor is able to feel their abdomen and determine if they are having problems with constipation. Their doctor can recommend dietary changes, activity changes, or perhaps medication to help alleviate any symptoms of constipation. While you are treating this condition for your child, encourage them to use the potty, reassure them that it will all be okay, and let them know that you are there for them and trying to help them with their problem. Give lots of hugs and let them know that you care when they are uncomfortable.

The third reason for potty training regression is a bit more variable and may be a little harder for you to diagnose. It is probably best to try to look at things from your child’s point of view. Try to think of anything that has changed in their life for the good or for the not so good. You may find that they are expressing stress in other ways as well such as excessive crying or maybe whining at dinner or a regression on going to bed on time. All of these things are sure signs that your child is stressed about something.

Determining exactly what that something is could be as simple as asking them. Take a little extra time at bedtime to go over things that may be bothering them and assure them that you are going to help them. It’s a good time for you to turn their focus from fear to fun with hugs and bedtime stories and a little extra assurance during a time when they really need it. Sometimes it simply a matter of they are feeling a bit neglected maybe you are busy with other things in your life and they are feeling a bit unseen. Take a little extra time to pamper your relationship with your child for a few days and see if that stops the behavior.

You can also talk to them about anything going on in the home that seems to be a bit different than normal. Perhaps they’re just having a hard time adjusting to the change.

If there is a new sibling:

  • Set aside some time to spend time with your child and them alone. It’s really difficult for a small child to learn to share their parents with another human being. Much less, a noisy one that everyone is making such a big fuss over. It’s hard for your little one to suddenly not be the center of attention. Take a little time out of your schedule to make them the center of attention and reassure your bond with them.
  • Make the new sibling fun! Let your little one help you decide what would be fun activities to take the baby to do. Perhaps you can all go to the park and it can be your little one’s idea! Encourage them to be a good big brother or sister and praise them for their efforts to do so.

If there is some other stressor:

  • If your child is experiencing fear, for whatever reason, this could certainly be detrimental to their potty training. Help alleviate their fear by assuring them that you will be there with them and for them. Let them know that it’s okay to be afraid of something and that all people are afraid of something at some time. Hugs and cuddles and encouragement go a long way and most certainly never ever force your child to do something there absolutely terrified of doing. Your child’s medical doctor could offer some more advice in this regard.
  • If your child has begun a new daycare or had another’s schedule change that seems to be affecting their potty training, you may not be able to change that thing back to what is normal for your child but you can help your child learn to adapt. You simply have to be patient with the potty training, encourage them to continue with their potty training and reward them for their efforts, and help your child make those adjustments by being there for them and supporting them.
  • Talk with them about what is making them uncomfortable. Try to find some supportive resources such as videos or cartoons that show a similar experience for other children or for characters that they love and show them that it will all be okay.
  • Talk with your child’s medical doctor. Let them know that you suspect a certain event or situation to be stressing your child and affecting their potty training and/or other behaviors. Your child’s medical doctor will have some advice for you or maybe even some resources. If the behavior goes on for a long time and you haven’t been able to rectify it, then it is certainly recommended to speak with your child’s doctor.
  • Lean on your community. Many other parents have been through exactly what you are dealing with right now. It helps for you to not feel alone and also for your child to be a part of a loving and supportive community. Talk with other moms or dads who may have children about the same age. You never know when someone has the perfect piece of advice for you that just settles right into place!

Speaking of community, this article is brought to you by the blogging contributors at Babienet Parenting Community, a community of caring parents just like you! Talking with other parents who are going through the same things that you are, or reading blog articles that help you to know you are not alone, is all a part of the community value we have here. We would love for you to share your journey with us!


Potty Training Problems: When Accidents and Regression Happen
Very Well Family–Potty Training Regression 

Other Babienet articles you may find useful

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When Potty Training Isn’t Going So Well | Babienet Blog

 Christina M. Ward,

Babienet blog contributor

Mother and grandmother

How to Avoid and Correct Potty Training Setbacks is an article for parents of small children who are having potty training setbacks or regression, providing reasons and helpful tips to alleviate potty training regression.