How to Deal With Potty-Training Regression

Potty training isn’t a linear process for many young children and their families. The process has its ups and downs, and often the dips last longer than you would have hoped. These dips or lapses are sometimes called regression—a period during potty training when a seemingly potty-trained 2-, 3-, or 4-year-old won't use the potty or has difficulty using the potty successfully, leading to accidents. Learn about what can trigger potty-training regression, why it happens at this age, and how to get your child back on course.

What Is Potty-Training Regression?

So, after observing signs of potty-training readiness in your child, you've forged ahead with potty training and all is going well. Then your child suddenly makes a reversal and appears to have forgotten how it all works or rejects even trying to use the potty. Accidents start happening on a regular basis, at home and even at day care.

This is referred to as potty-training regression, which is characterized by a sudden abandonment or rejection of potty routines, constant accidents, or even your child’s wanting to go back to using diapers.

What Factors Can Lead to Potty-Training Regression?

A number of factors can contribute to a regression in potty training. However, it’s important to understand that children learn and acquire new skills differently than adults, as they’re still developing cognitively and emotionally. They make progress in rapid spurts and then have times when they seem to make no improvement. So what can seem like a worrisome setback to an adult is actually just part of the standard learning process for young children.

Accidents Happen!

Toddlers and young children often have trouble recognizing the urge to pee or poop and may not make it to the toilet in time. So a key point to keep in mind is that all children will have an accident now and then during their potty-training journey—this is normal and expected. It's when a child who was successfully using the potty before starts having accidents frequently that this is usually considered a regression.

Causes of Potty-Training Regression

Potty training setbacks can be triggered by certain health issues such as urinary tract infections, constipation, and painful bowel movements. If these have been ruled out by your toddler’s healthcare provider, their regression could be explained by a sudden change in family life or environment, or some sort of underlying anxiety or source of stress that crops up during potty training.

Here are some common causes of regression during potty training:

  • Change in child care, such as a new babysitter or a new day care center/preschool

  • New pregnancy/sibling

  • Marital discord or divorce

  • Family conflict

  • Recent death in the family

  • A move to a new home.

When your toddler or preschooler is faced with any of the above, they may need to take a break from toilet training so that they can adjust to the new situation. And that’s OK. Instead of looking at your child’s regression as a problem, look at it as a way to cope when life suddenly becomes overwhelming.

Why Your Toddler May Be Having Potty-Training Accidents

Again, an accident now and then is a natural part of the learning process, and a cluster of accidents may be due to health conditions or to significant change in the family structure or environment, as outlined in the sections above. But if you've gone through these medical and lifestyle factors and none are relevant, you may still be questioning why your potty-trained 2-, 3-, 3.5-, or 4-year-old is suddenly having accidents. It's worthwhile to look at things from your child’s point of view to help account for repeated potty-training accidents.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • Your child may be seeking your attention (this doesn’t mean your potty-trained toddler is having accidents on purpose)

  • You may be perceived as too controlling during potty training for your independent-minded child, and their resistance to comply leads to accidents

  • They’ve momentarily forgotten or were distracted

  • They’re too busy with an activity and put off going to the toilet

  • They’ve waited too long before attempting to use the toilet

  • Your toddler was previously using the potty or toilet but now refuses due to their active imagination, which may lead them to fear the potty or toilet

  • Your child is imitating another child (who may not yet be toilet-trained)

  • A desire to re-experience infanthood may lead them to ask to wear diapers again.

Shame After Accidents

Potty training takes place during the ages when many children develop the ability to experience shame and discomfort. Most toddlers and preschoolers don’t know how to handle these feelings, and when accidents occur—or when a child has done something else that they know they shouldn't have done—they may act as if nothing happened because they’re seeking their parents’ approval.

Here are some other reactions to potty-training accidents that come from a potty-trained toddler's feelings of embarrassment or shame:

  • They may say they’ve used the potty/toilet when they’ve actually urinated elsewhere

  • They may hide or discard their soiled underwear

  • They may attempt to clean up an accident before anyone notices.

3 Steps for Handling Potty-Training Regression

During a regression in potty training, use these steps and work with your child to manage the situation and get back on track:

1. Identify the Problem

Using the above as a guide, try to identify the issue that could be causing your child’s regression. Depending on your toddler’s age and how verbal and communicative they are, you could ask them to try to explain what they’re experiencing.

Begin by mentioning that you've seen a change in their behavior—that they have stopped using their potty, are having lots of accidents at day care or elsewhere, or are asking to wear diapers. Then try to decipher your child’s response and figure out what could have led to the regression.

2. Attempt to Fix the Issue

See if there are practical ways you can deal with your child’s issue. For example,

  • if your child is having trouble getting to the bathroom or getting undressed, move the potty to the playroom or someplace closer, and be sure you dress your child in easy to remove clothing (no overalls or belts)

  • if they're upset about a new sibling, you could set aside special time with your toddler that excludes the new sibling

  • if they're worried about an incident while potty-training at day care, see if you can work out a plan with the caregivers, who can give your toddler special attention at potty time.

You can even ask your toddler for suggestions or ideas on how to solve the problem.

3. Be Clear About What You Expect

With a younger child, nonverbal cues and instructions are often the most effective. So take steps such as having a potty close at hand and sitting your child on it when you see they have the urge to go.

With an older child, you can go ahead and use your words. Tell them that you’re confident they will be able to use the potty. To help them along the way, offer hugs and praise when they reach success, use a potty-training sticker chart to plot their wins, and give them the occasional pep talk as needed.

How to Deal With Regression and Accidents During Potty Training

How do you respond to potty-training accidents such as any of the ones mentioned above? The best reaction is in three steps:

  1. Kindly and gently tell your child that you’re aware of their accident

  2. Reassure them it’s alright

  3. Tell them that you trust they’ll be more successful the next time.

You can ask for their help in cleaning up the accident, not as form of punishment but as a way to learn how to take care of themselves. Avoid scolding or any form of punishment for potty accidents—it isn't appropriate and won’t help your child during their regression at all.

Whenever you're out and about with your child, bring a change of clothing, just in case. And always keep at least one spare set of clothes at the day care facility (many will ask you or require you to do this) or tuck an extra outfit into your child's backpack.

An Alternative to Returning to Diapers

If all else fails and you're thinking about going back to diapers, you could try training pants for a short time. This solution may appeal to your toddler, especially after potty-training regression with multiple accidents or if they’ve asked to return to diapers. Training pants have many benefits: they offer an extra level of confidence and can prevent embarrassing accidents without the need to return to diapering. Your child can also wear the training pants under their underwear, which can make them feel one step closer to being a “big kid.”

Just make sure that your toddler is able to pull their training pants up and down when they have the urge to go and keep their potty chair conveniently close by. Eventually, your child will get back on track and resume potty-training without the need for training pants.

Watch the video below to learn more about the benefits of training pants:

Managing Your Own Expectations

During a time when your child may be experiencing potty-training regression and accidents, it’s best to

  • set aside your expectations

  • avoid emotionally reacting to your child’s actions

  • not feel embarrassed about how a potty-training accident may look like to others.

If an accident happens, try to keep your cool, and if you feel like you’re getting frustrated with your child, ask your partner, another caregiver, or even a friend who’s available to take over until you’ve regained your composure. No matter what, don’t scold or punish your child for a potty-training accident.

Refocus your attention on your child and how you can support them, providing them with the information they need to understand how to avoid accidents in the future.

If you’re still experiencing potty-training problems with your child, don’t be afraid to consult their healthcare provider for advice. Parenting classes can also be a great resource during this time. Other parents will be more than happy to share their experiences when potty training their own children. Candid conversations can provide valuable insight into remedying your child’s potty-training regression.

The Bottom Line

Regression can happen for your potty-trained toddler at any time during their potty-training journey for any number of reasons, as we’ve mentioned above. A sudden change in routine can knock them off course. A major family event like a move to a new home or a divorce can halt progress. A new pregnancy and therefore an impending new sibling can make your child seek attention.

No matter the reason for the potty-training regression, there are ways to manage the resulting accidents and get back on track for success. Seek out helpful strategies and potty-training tips, get to the root of the issue, make attempts to remedy the issue with a solution, and help your child understand the benefits of being potty-trained and how you have all the confidence in their successfully achieving this end goal.

Sooner than you know it, you’ll have a potty-trained child ready to face the world!

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.