Regression is Normal! Here’s How to get Back on Track
By Katherine Bontrager
What is regression? Having accidents or refusing to use the toilet after having successfully toilet trained.
It’s one of the most frustrating aspects of toilet training: Your toddler has been in underwear for weeks when suddenly he or she begins to have accidents. Your excitement at having successfully completed toilet training gives way to dismay after you face some common toilet training problems.
Robin Nolan’s son finished toilet training at age 2 1/2 but began having accidents again when the family welcomed a new baby. Robin had heard this could be common, but it was a definite frustration – especially when coupled with the demands of a newborn infant.
Having multiple accidents or refusing to use the toilet after having successfully finished toilet training is called regression, says Dr. Charles Shubin. Regression, while frustrating, is a common struggle many parents encounter, and it has a variety of causes. But don’t worry – you can get back on track with training despite a bout of regression.
There are multiple reasons a child may regress:
- Addition of a new brother or sister to the family
- A urinary tract infection
- Stress or anxiety
- An abrupt change in routine
- Starting at daycare
- Being teased or disciplined for an accident at daycare
- Having an unpleasant experience using the toilet
- Any other major life change
What Triggers Regression?
Experts say a major reason for regression is the addition of a new brother or sister to the family. “The sibling rivalry that ensues motivates the older child to act more like the baby to get the attention back [that] the baby has taken away,” Dr. Shubin says. “Attention-getting is frequently the basis for regression, even without the arrival of a new sibling.” Another possible cause for regression could be an infection. A urinary tract infection can make it difficult and painful to control the bladder, so this can manifest as regression.
And while regression can happen for many reasons, it’s usually stress-related, says Michelle LaRowe, a professional nanny with more than 12 years of experience. LaRowe has helped many a toddler through toilet training and has witnessed regression many times.
“An abrupt change in routine, starting a daycare, welcoming a new baby into the home or any other major life change will throw the little one’s mind and body out of whack,” says LaRowe. "Having an unpleasant experience using the toilet, such as a painful bowel movement, or being teased or disciplined for an accident at daycare also could be the cause.
Some older children don’t want to take a break from playing and end up getting to the potty or toilet too late."
Solutions for Regression
Getting back to basics
Dr. Shubin advises getting back to the basics in order to get back on track with toilet training. “Return to the basics of behaviour modification: clear expectations, clear responses to the expectations being met (rewards, especially attention) and clear responses to the expectations not being met (ignoring the unacceptable behaviour).”
Dr. Natterson says positive reinforcement is key. And she’s quick to point out that negative reinforcement can have a bad effect on your child’s progress.
“Positive reinforcement reinforces behaviour, but so does negative reinforcement,” she says. "If your child suddenly gets lots of attention for accidents or regressing to a diaper, s/he may become invested in that behaviour. Sure, s/he would like positive attention, but s/[he] will take negative attention over being ignored. For this reason, praise your toddler any time he gets back on the potty and returns to prior habits.
Even if s/he doesn’t go in the potty
or toilet but just tries, give lots of positive feedback. And if there’s an accident or your child – goes to the bathroom on the floor [on purpose], do your very best to ignore the behaviour so that your toddler doesn’t think that it’s an effective way of getting your attention."
Books and Games
LaRowe says reading books and playing toilet training games with your child will offer additional positive reinforcement. She also recommends starting a reward or sticker chart. Making toilet training fun and visually charting your child’s progress will allow him or her to take pride in daily accomplishments.
“Get back on track by sitting on the potty or toilet during regularly scheduled times as part of your daily routine, every three or so hours,” LaRowe says. “You can also try to catch him when he looks like he needs to use the potty, remind him to use the potty or toilet when he’s playing and provide lots of positive, purposeful praise during this time of getting back on track.”
As for Nolan? She focused on giving her son the extra attention he craved and relied on the start of school – it served as both a deadline for his potty training efforts and a sign that he was now old enough to use the potty. “For school, I put him in – underwear and sweat pants he can easily take down to go potty,” she says. “He seems empowered now, using the toilet on his own, even at home.”
For more information see Toilet Training Tips.