4 steps to handle potty training regression

Do you have to haul out the nappies again after a successful stint of potty training? Here’s why your little one might be experiencing a regression, and what you can do about it.

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Although it might be frustrating to have to deal with sudden changes in our children’s development or progress in a particular area, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics’ Guide To Toilet Training, it’s quite normal for little ones to experience a potty training regression.  This is because a young child’s learning often depends on his development in other areas. At times, a child may even regress in what he’s learned – that is, lose skills he’s recently acquired or even take a few steps back in the learning process.

ALSO SEE: 6 common potty training questions answered

“The key is to not panic and look for the root cause behind your little one’s potty training regression,” says childcare expert and author of Toddler Sense, Ann Richardson.

Follow these steps to guide you through the process:

Step 1: Rule out illness

“A true potty training regression only really occurs around six months after your little one is out of nappies during the day (not night),” explains Ann. In fact, it’s common for occasional setbacks in the early days, so if your child has a few accidents a few weeks after transitioning to underwear, don’t sweat it. And before you consider all sorts of reasons why your child could be having more “accidents”, make sure he doesn’t have an infection of some sort, says Ann. “Infections of the urogenital area including the bladder and kidneys, could be to blame for sudden changes in toilet habits,” explains Ann.

Constipation is another common medical issue that’s been linked to potty training regressions. If your child is struggling to have a bowel movement, chances are he won’t want to sit on the potty or toilet for too long, and he might even have a negative association towards it. Make sure he’s eating plenty of wholefoods, such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, and he’s drinking enough water throughout the day. If the constipation continues and you’re concerned, see your GP for further advice.

ALSO SEE: 3 natural tummy ache rememdies for tots

Once medical causes are ruled out and/or you’ve dealt with any health-related causes, you can move on to step 2.

Step 2: Look at your child’s social and emotional environment

Have you recently moved house or introduced your little one to a new sibling? Studies show that any change in your child’s emotional environment, including family, home, school, a death, or change of nanny or teacher, could cause a potty training regression, as he might be feeling stressed or overwhelmed. If there are big changes happening in your family life, try to help your child through them by being positive, encouraging and consistent. Avoid overreacting if he has a few “accidents” during the day, and keep moving forward. Chances are, as soon as things in your environment settle down, your child will too, says Ann.

The current COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown can also be the reason for your little one’s toilet training regression. According to Psychology Today, regression (when a child moves backward in their development) is a very common reaction to stress. “Just like many of us are having a harder time managing everyday tasks and challenges, so are our kids. This can result in more challenging behaviors and regression to less mature levels of functioning. You may see your child get frustrated more easily, become more clingy, have more potty accidents, experience sleep disruption, and, have a change in their eating patterns”, writes child development and parenting expert, Claire Lerner.

Step 3: Distinguish between bed wetting and potty training regression

“Many kids are not dry at night for years after they are dry during the day,” explains US-based paediatrician Dr J Goldstein. Night-time and naptime bladder control are different from daytime control, and for this reason, staying dry at night could take longer, and should be dealt with differently. “During children’s toddler years, they wet the bed because they simply haven’t mastered night-time bladder control,” explains Dr James Dobson in his book, The New Dare to Discipline.

ALSO SEE: 4 tips for night time potty training

How to prevent bed wetting

“Some parents wake their children up every two to three hours at night to go to the potty – even when they’re not fully awake,” says Dr Dobson. Although this might resolve the issue temporarily for younger children, he doesn’t recommend doing this for older kids, as they sometimes dream that they’re being told to “wee” and wet the bed.

Instead, researchers from the American Sleep Association suggest offering a reward each time your child calls you in the night to go to the potty or manages to stay dry. It’s also important to rule out any emotional issues at home or school that could be the underlying trigger for bed-wetting episodes, says Dr Dobson.

Step 4: Be patient

If you’ve just started potty training, it’s critical to have realistic goals to start with, says Ann. Pushing potty training too early isn’t advised, as little ones don’t have proper bladder control before the age of two, she explains. Also, if your child isn’t emotionally ready to transition out of nappies, a regression usually occurs quite quickly, within a month or two.

ALSO SEE: Our top tips to make potty training easy and fun

Start off on the right foot with the following advice from Ann:

  • There should be no pressure to start potty training. Make it as fun and exciting as possible.
  • Let your child show you when he’s ready to start. This could mean he tells you when he’s pooed in his nappy and wants you to change it; or he’s pulling his nappy off a lot of the time; or he shows an interest when you use the toilet and wants to try it himself.
  • If he starts having more accidents, offer reassurance, not punishment.
  • If he is going through a true potty training regression, take the pressure off. Wait for at least a month and start again. Eventually, he’ll get it. The aim is to manage any emotional issues around potty training.

Claire says it’s important to validate your child’s experience. “Because we love our kids so deeply, it is hard to see them struggle. We just want to make the “bad” feelings go away because we think it’s harmful to them to feel sad, angry, or scared. But ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them magically disappear, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors—like aggression and regression—that can lead to more, not less, stress for your child … and you.

So, start by acknowledging that your world has changed a lot over the past few weeks, and that change can be hard. Share that you are also adapting, and that you are all in this together,” she writes.

More about the expert:

Ann Richardson is a qualified nurse and midwife. She is also the co-author of the international bestsellers, Baby Sense; Sleep Sense and author of the international best seller Toddler Sense. Learn more about Ann Richardson here.

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