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Jennifer Kavur’s son was just about potty trained. Sebastian had been wearing underwear for months, only sporting pull-on diapers when sleeping or for long car rides.
But after spending a lot more time than usual in the car—first for a road trip and then for numerous trips to pick up supplies for home renovations—the four-year-old got in the habit of wearing diapers. And it didn’t help that those renos meant the only washroom at home wasn’t easily accessible to Sebastian. Now he insists on wearing diapers all the time, even at home. “He feels nervous in underwear,” says Kavur. “We’ve pretty much given up on him wearing them.”
Sebastian had gone backwards in his potty training—a frustrating but surprisingly common experience. “People think there’s a definitive finish line that you cross,” says Jamie Glowacki, author of Oh Crap! Potty Training. But that’s not always the case.
There will always be accidents along the path to toilet self-sufficiency. But occasional accidents that can be explained—like your kid just didn’t get to the washroom fast enough or was distracted until it was too late—are not considered an official potty-training regression.
“A true regression looks like [the] just falls apart,” says Glowacki. Your kid was using the toilet like a champ, and then they weren’t. Some regressions can seem retaliatory, she says. For example, if your preschooler pees on the couch every time you breastfeed the baby.
Regressions typically occur when kids are going through an upheaval, such as a divorce, a new sibling or starting preschool. “The root of the problem is not that they’re peeing all over the place,” says Glowacki. “That’s a symptom of the problem.”
Try to identify the reason for your kid’s regression and then chat with them about it. And without leading your child, help them find the language to explain how they’re feeling. “They don’t have the words,” says Glowacki. “They’re explaining their feelings with behaviour.”
Go to extra lengths to validate their feelings and let them know they’ve been heard. For instance, in the case of the arrival of a new sibling—the most common cause of a regression—your child likely wishes they were still a baby, getting all that attention. Involve them in your downtime with the new baby, like reading a picture book together while you nurse. Ease off the big-sibling language (“Look at what a good big sister you are!”), and instead build up your kid’s autonomy through actions that highlight their capabilities. Maybe let them help you with big-kid jobs like preparing dinner so they can feel proud of their abilities—this also highlights the benefits of being older. This tactic should tackle the underlying reason for the relapse.
You’ll also probably have to go back to potty-training basics to get your child back on track. It won’t take as long as the first time, but yep, you’ll likely need to start all over.
That’s what Lisa Austin* did. Shortly after starting preschool, Charlie*, now five, started pooping in his pants regularly after having been perfectly potty trained for more than a month. A visit to the doctor confirmed Charlie’s accidents were not caused by medical issues, such as a poop blockage or a urinary tract infection, so Austin and her husband implemented a sticker chart and promised a big-ticket item—a bike—as a reward for no accidents. After two weeks without improvement, they gave up on the stickers (and a family friend coincidentally gave him a bike anyway). After about three months, with lots of patience and positive reinforcement, Charlie was using the toilet again. “I think what worked was just Charlie getting used to the preschool,” says Austin.
Three months is a long time, and thankfully, Glowacki says most regressions should resolve within a week or so. If the regression lasts longer, you may want to seek your doctor’s advice.
As for Kavur, and Sebastian’s return to diapers? “I’m just leaving it alone,” she says. Once renos are over and they’re not in the car as much, she plans to switch him back to wearing underwear.
* Names have been changed