Potty Training Regressions and Refusals – Why They Happen and How to Cope!

While there are a multitude of different potty training problems, the two most common – and definitely the ones I get the most questions about – are regressions (accidents after a period of being fully dry/clean for a good while) and refusals (refusing to use the potty or toilet, most commonly after 3-7 days of beginning training). Let’s look at both of these, the reasons that are usually behind them and what parents can do about them.

Refusing to use the toilet or potty (and requesting nappies/diapers again) is common around three days after potty training begins, although it can (and does) happen at anytime within the first month. Usually this happens for a few common reasons:
1. the excitement has worn off, the child has realised that actually there’s more work involved in potty training than they expected and it isn’t as fun as they imagined it would be (especially during the underwear and potty buying trips!).
2. They become stressed or scared by accidents (or more specifically somebody’s reaction to an accident) and want to avoid it again,
3. Over-prompting. This often results in children withholding, because they frankly get sick of being asked if they need to go!
4. Inconsistency between home and somewhere else, or inconsistency in keeping them in underwear/bare-bottomed and swapping to nappies/diapers (e.g: when you’re away from home).
If you are pretty sure that you started training when the child was physically and emotionally ready and have had some success in the previous days (and by some success I don’t mean no accidents – I would expect more accidents than in the potty), then keep going! With the proviso that:
1. You need to keep up the excitement with lots of effort-based praise and sharing books, DVDs and conversations about potty training. Here, meeting up with a friend with a potty trained child is a great idea too.
2. Really be very careful about your own attitude, are you positive? Or are you feeling stressed and negative and allowing your emotions to rub off on your child, especially when they have accidents. Could you have scared or upset them with your response to an accident?
3. Stop the prompting, or dramatically reduce it.
4. Make sure you’re consistent, unfortunately – although it’s inconvenient, you really do need to devote time to potty training, ideally 3 days as a minimum. If you can’t devote that time (ie booking holidays from work, ordering grocery shopping from the internet and taking some days off of your regular activities), then I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t even start. This is a huge moment in your child’s life, they deserve the time and attention needed to achieve it.
You may also need to take the lead and take some of the control back from child. For instance, I would offer “underwear or no underwear (bare bummed/commando) today?”, but wouldn’t offer a nappy/diaper. Depending on the child’s level of understanding/verbal ability I would also have a chat with them about growth mindset (not using that terminology obviously) and how proud you have been of them over the last week for trying to so hard, re-iterate accidents are OK, they are learning and they all happen, tell the child that you had them too. Usually what’s needed with refusals is some emotional work – for you as a parent as much, if not more so, than fhe child!

In my experience, most parents need to reset their expectations when it comes to what success when potty training looks like. Children have accidents for months and YEARS after potty training. There is a bit of an incorrect assumption in our society that once they’re done – that’s it, no more accidents, actually – that rarely happens. The learning carries on for months and years after the initial ‘training’ period and with that learning comes mistakes.  If you could draw potty training success in a chart, it would look like this:

Regression after a new baby arriving in the family is common, it can and does knock a toddler/preschooler for six, their world is changed over night and it literally pulls the rug from under their feet. Naturally they struggle to control their bodies when they’re feeling so bad and sometimes potty training accidents mean more attention for them, at a time when they are desperate to be seen. Ultimately the key here is to be compassionate and empathic towards how the child is feeling. In the case of a new sibling arrival, the child will be busy dealing with feelings of anger, grief, sadness, confusion etc.. it’s no wonder attention so often shifts away from potty training. Sometimes wetting and soiling happen deliberately, in this instance it’s almost always a cry for attention (actually it is in most cases) – ask yourself what does your child need? The answer is almost always, you. Or rather the you they had before the new baby arrived. The accidents draw your attention solely to them for a few minutes. Any attention is better than no attention. The answer to this is to build in one-to-one time with the child away from the baby – preferably not with the baby in the same building. Feed and run and take them to the park for half an hour a day leaving your baby with your partner/parents/friend. Make sure you do the oldest child’s bedtime each day, give them a bath and read a story while your baby is elsewhere in the house.

Another common cause of regressions that is often overlooked is a physical cause. Here the top culprits are constipation or a urinary tract infection (UTI). Constipation commonly results in soiling accidents (especially diarrhoea) because of what is known as overflow poo. While UTIs cause very frequent urination and dribbling. In both cases, the child is incapable of not having an accident. If there is no big emotional change in your child’s life and their toileting has regressed, the first thing you should do is to pay a trip to your family doctor to rule out constipation and UTIs.
In terms of how to react when the accidents happen – Stay calm, stay compassionate and stay consistent – don’t under any circumstances threaten to put the child back in nappies. This will pass! Just as with refusals, the key to surviving regressions is once again you – and how you act and react.

For more on potty training – including signs of readiness, how to prepare practically and emotionally, common hiccups along with way and how to copy with them, check out my gentle potty training book in the UK HERE, Australia and New Zealand HERE, the USA HERE, Canada HERE and the rest of the world HERE.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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