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There is nothing more horrifying to the parents of a potty-trained child than walking into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and accidentally stepping into a big, warm puddle of urine. At first you may wonder if it’s just a one-off thing, an accident. Your kid is having a bad day. But then it happens again and again and before you can say “pee”, you are in the middle of a potty training regression.
It gives me chills just thinking about it, and yet, potty training regressions are a routine part of growing up. Just knowing it’s normal can take the edge off, but how do you get back on track?
In this article, we’re covering your most frequently asked questions around potty training regression alongside recommendations from leading child psychologists and therapists.
What Is A Potty Training Regression?
A toddler potty training regression happens when a child is successfully using the potty for weeks or months then suddenly forgets to tell you they need to go, has increasingly frequent accidents, and perhaps even refuses to sit on the potty.
A friend and seasoned mother of two adult children recently gave me some motherly wisdom.
She said, “I could deal with the lack of sleep, I could deal with the constant whining, but having to revisit potty training or anything else after my kids knew how…I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Looking back, it was useless to fight them. Children don’t work that way.”
She’s right! Regressions in learning are common in early childhood as children often master multiple skills simultaneously.
It is expected that toddlers will show periods of rapid improvement, periods of no improvement, and even periods where they seem to forget everything.
While it’s developmentally normal, it’s totally cool if you need to step out for a few good screams into a pillow from time to time.
How Long Does A Potty Training Regression last?
Potty training regressions can be as short as a few days or as long as a few weeks.
Regressions lasting a month or more without improvement may indicate that your child was not developmentally ready for potty learning.
(Sometimes kids can show signs of readiness, but they aren’t quite ready! Undefining Motherhood’s Katy had to re-start her son’s potty learning and shared advice on when to give up on potty training.)
Ongoing regressions can also indicate an underlying issue you’ve not yet identified. It’s okay to seek out advice from a pediatrician or a child mental health professional.
A recent potty training regression with my son lasted about a week and half, and the improvement was so gradual that I couldn’t even pinpoint when it ended.
The duration of a regression will often depend on the temperament of the child as well as whatever is triggering the regression – perhaps a life change or maybe something in their environment?
In just a moment, we’ll discuss the most common triggers for potty training regressions as well as what you can do to make them as painless as possible!
What Are Some Common Triggers For A Potty Training Regression?
Just as in adulthood, during times of emotional difficulty children stray from a new routine or positive habit they’ve recently picked up.
Potty training regressions tend to occur during these life transitions or events:
- A new baby in the family
- New school, new home, or other new environment
- Illness, especially prolonged
- Emotional strife in the family (grief, divorce, mental health struggles)
- Negative associations with toilet use leading to fear or avoidance
- Developmental “leaps” or growth spurts
- Periods of intense focus on playtime or other engaging activities
In addition, constipation can be a cause but also a symptom of potty regression.
Before you pull out the toddler constipation medicine and call it a day, consider any negative experiences your toddler has had on the potty or any dietary changes that may also need to be addressed.
What Ages Are Typical For A Potty Training Regression?
With little research available on the subject of learning regressions, this is a tricky question to answer.
Some parents (myself included) notice a potty training regression at around 2 years old, while others swear their children develop potty amnesia between the ages of 4 and 5 years old.
The preschool-age potty regression is particularly scream-inducing for parents.
Just when you’ve finally replaced your carpet and thrown away the urine deodorizer, your child turns into a sneaky pee fairy sprinkling gifts throughout the house.
In reality, the age your child experiences these regressions will depend on a variety of factors including when you decide to begin the toilet training process.
At What Age Should A Child Be Fully Potty Trained?
The short answer is between 2 and 3 years old (according to the latest American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations).
The longer, more scientific answer to this question is that it varies A LOT by societal norms, race, socioeconomic status, and the unique developmental trajectory of each child.
In the 1940’s, potty training in the U.S. began before 18 months old. Today, the average age to start potty training is somewhere between 21 and 36 months with as little as 40% of children mastering use of the toilet by 36 months. (This is not even accounting for nighttime potty training success, which often comes much later!)
The time needed to complete daytime potty training is typically 3 to 6 months or more.
As a big parenting research nerd, I have come to the conclusion there is absolutely no consensus on the exact age to potty train even among experts using the same parenting philosophies and practices.
There are no winners in the race to the porcelain finish line! If you run into potty training problems, reach out to your pediatrician for advice.
What Can You Do About A Potty Training Regression?
There are as many different approaches to regressions as there are parents in this world. Expect some trial and error!
To give you a good starting point, I’ll share my real-life strategy for addressing learning regressions and other periods of mental, emotional, or behavioral toddler mayhem.
Don’t worry! My approach is 100% backed by experts in the fields of social work and child psychology.
This approach is a triple whammy – See, Simplify, Structure.
1. See: Understand Your Child’s Emotions
Once you’ve identified you’re in a regression, take some time to really observe what’s going on in your child’s life.
If you’ve read our previous article on Montessori for infants, you are already familiar with the concept of observing the child. You are going to take that approach but add in a special technique called emotion coaching.
You’ll want to spend some phone-free, distraction-free one on one time with your child, preferably after they have fully calmed down following some big emotional moment.
Take note of their emotional state, as well as your own. For older children, you can simply ask what they are feeling.
For younger ones, you may say something like, “It seemed like you were angry and shocked when I took the tablet away so you could go potty. Is that right?”
Listen and empathize without trying to correct any behaviors. Don’t be tempted to feed them solutions. It’s important that they come to their own conclusions about what occurred.
This is all about making the child feel seen, heard, and safe so eventually you can move into deeper conversations about what is actually triggering their potty regression.
2. Simplify: Eliminate Distractions, Crowded Schedules, and Commitments
Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, describes periods of childhood distress and upheaval as a “soul fever.”
While your practical mom brain may want to focus on the potty training regression itself, the root of your child’s negative behavior is often emotional.
Kids get cranky. They have a bad attitude. Their behavior is out of whack, and they are in a funk.
In our house, when a soul fever arrives, we clear our evening and weekend calendar with some polite “no thank you’s”, clean our house of clutter, turn off the tv and make space for lots of cozy, quiet play time.
Simplifying can sometimes be enough for a young child to work through their feelings and resume their normal potty habits, but I often find I need to create some daily structure for them as well.
3. Structure: Set Loving Boundaries and Limits
When my toddler went from zero accidents to wetting the carpet every two hours, I could tell he was equally frustrated and also ashamed. I saw how he avoided my gaze when I reminded him that we pee and poo in the potty.
I had been relying on him to inform me when he needed to go, and at some point, it became too much for him to juggle. He needed me to step in and set some loving boundaries around potty time again.
Loving boundaries or limits are the thoughtful, intentional rules in a household that promote wellness, harmony, and safety.
How Do I Set Loving Limits During A Potty Training Regression?
After you’ve identified the possible triggers of your child’s regression and re-connected with them during some quiet family time, you are in the best possible position to establish a loving limit.
Loving limits work best when your child feels safe and understood.
Begin with a statement of empathy and then be as clear and concise as possible with your child about the new limit or boundary. Make sure your child knows you are on their team. It’s a group effort.
It’s hard to remember to go to the potty sometimes. We are going to stop playing in five minutes and visit the potty. Mommy will help you.
This new limit may result in big tears, big tantrums, and big emotions. Your kiddo is allowed to feel however they want about the new rule – that’s not in your control.
Acknowledge their feelings but also acknowledge that this is a rule you’ve set. You and your child will be taking a break to visit the potty in five minutes even if it means you have to gently carry them to the bathroom.
Keep in mind that these limits are not enforced with punishments but with repeated encouraging guidance, re-direction, and reassurance.
I would personally discourage the use of punishment, as it does not effectively change behavior and can even make a regression worse.
I Feel Like I’m Always Losing It! How Do I Stay Relaxed And Connected To My Child During A Potty Training Regression?
It’s hard to watch your happy child fall apart in frustration or anger over using the potty. Their white hot rage is often directed right at you. How can you not take it personally?
Dr. Becky Kennedy, clinical psychologist and host of the podcast Good Inside, has some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a parent on the verge of losing it.
She reminds parents to look at their “misbehaving” child and consider, What is the most generous (most loving) interpretation of your child’s behavior?
Are they desperate for your love when you’re so focused on the new baby? Do they feel forgotten? Do they feel shaken by big changes in their life?
Pausing to answer this question slows down my racing brain and takes me back to my pure, empathetic intentions. It reminds me that my child is inherently loving and that we’ll get through this rough patch together as a family.
Final Thoughts on Potty Training Regression
Potty training regressions are an emotionally super-charged time for parents and their little ones. All the stress and anxiety of the previous potty training seems to bubble up again.
Worry, anger, shame, and frustration are normal reactions, but parents can also use these experiences to create even stronger connections with their children.
Your child will eventually get back to using the potty like a pro, and you can get back to wearing your nice socks in the house.
Has your child experienced the dreaded potty training regression or any other kinds of learning regressions? Tell us about your child’s experience and how they got back on track!
Brittany Cantrell is an Epidemiologist at her local health department who oversees a team of beautiful, talented women. Though she specializes in infectious disease prevention, she is a strong advocate for all public health professionals. She is the owner and author of the mindful travel blog, The World Enough, where readers are empowered to live with presence and without fear. She was born and raised in the rolling foothills of the north Georgia mountains. In her spare time, you can find her helplessly pinned to the couch by one of her two cats, heading to a yoga class, or planning her next adventure.