How to handle potty training regression

potty training boy

by Rachel Fitz-Desorgher |

Parenting expert Rachel Fitz-Desorgher explains the term 'potty training regression' and other important things to know around getting your little one towards the toilet.

At this time of year, I get lots of calls about potty training and with good reason - the sun comes out and your toddler is no longer encumbered by layers of heavy clothes. What better time to buy some cute mini pants and support your child towards managing their own pees and poos?

Read more: An expert answers all of your potty training questions

So this month we are looking at the best ways to help our little one to gain toilet independence and also what to do if we hit a regression.

First things first: most parents mistakenly think that they should be aiming to get their child “clean and dry” when, in fact, what they should be working towards is “Toilet Independence”. This is a totally different way of looking at this stage and, once you understand this approach, life suddenly looks a lot easier! Just as with eating and sleeping, peeing and pooing are bodily functions and if you try to take control, any toddler worth their salt will retaliate by taking back that control and simply refusing to do what you want. Cue dirty protests!

Your child needs to be supported to have the right strategies for managing their own toileting and know what to do when accidents inevitably happen.

Now we have that clear, let’s dig down …

Causes of potty training regression

Sometimes potty training regression is just due to distraction, perhaps your child doesn't want to stop playing to use the toilet. It can also be caused by stress due to changes in their lives, like starting school, a new sibling or changes at home like parents splitting up. Things like having an accident at school and being shamed may cause regression too.

Another reason for potty training regression may be constipation. If your child is having painful bowel movements, it may make them less likely to want to go to the toilet. If unnoticed, children may hold it in for so long that they can't tell when they need to go, and have accidents where they poo their pants.

Urinary tract infections or intestinal bugs may also scare a child away from the potty for a time.

How do I handle potty training regression?

Most learning is a process of two steps forward and one back. To begin with we are super-focussed on our new skill and then, as we get better at it, we can let our attention slip a little and go backwards. Accidents are normal - every classroom in every primary school will have a box of spare pants for these occasions. What you’re trying to achieve is independence so, if your child has an accident, gently support them as they clean it up. No drama, no excitement, no anxiety, just a quick hand to grab some paper towels!

Don’t over-reassure your child (that’s bound to create suspicion and concern), simply walk them through how to handle a wee or a poo in the pants or on the floor without any fuss.

Sometimes your child will get mucky as they try to clean themselves after a poo and you will need to calmly help as you show them how to wash themselves and remind them that it’s ok to call in future if they need you. But it really is just a bit of poo, after all, and it will wash off - don’t treat it with any more excitement than it needs, which is ... none!

So, you can reduce the likelihood of a regression or at least limit how long it lasts, by taking it in your stride, eliminating reward systems and, above all else, giving your child the space and privacy they require and the independence they crave, just making it clear that you’re there when needed to support and help them as they grow up

When's the best age to start potty training?

Gaining control over bladder and bowels is a developmental stage and, quite simply, the earlier you start the more accidents you will have to deal with. This is not a race and getting your child “dry” sooner or later than your friend’s child does not define you as a good or bad parent. Our grandparents always planned to manage this stage during “the spring and summer closest to the 2nd birthday” and this is still a good time to start. If in doubt, however, wait a little.

Nighttime dryness comes later and 1 in 10 ten-year-olds regularly wet the bed so do not expect too much too soon or you’ll set yourself, and your child, up for failure. It is not always easy to spot clues as to readiness but it can be helpful if your child has some simple language skills so can ask for the potty or for help to wipe. With the advent of “feel-dry,” disposable nappies toddlers have stopped being so aware, as they used to be in Terry nappies, that they have had a wee.

This means that waiting until they can tell you that they feel wet as a sign that they are ready to go into pants is no longer a reliable measure. So you might simply need to pick a good week when you have little else happening in your life, cross your fingers and just get cracking.

How should I support my child with potty training?

Remember what I said at the very start - you are not trying to get your child clean and dry, you are supporting them to become independent. So take your child to the shops, go to the pants rack and give them a choice between two different packs of simple pants (don’t overwhelm them with choice). Don’t make a big deal out of this - you’re just buying pants for goodness sake! Buy at least a dozen pairs.

Now think about your child’s environment - can they find the potty? Can they manage wet wipes? Can they reach the sink? Is there easy to use soap and a towel? Where are wet/dirty pants going to go (I suggest a bucket by the loo)? Now, without any fuss and excitement, simply explain to your child how to manage: “Sweetie, it is time to start using the potty. When you need a wee here it is for you to use. Shout if you need my help.”

The first week it can really help to be home-based so you don’t have to handle accidents out and about and also because, if the weather is really good, you can forget pants altogether and head into the garden - if the first few wees water the grass, who cares? Your child will see the wee and start to make the connection. If a wee hits the potty, don’t make a huge thing of it - this is just a wee and you expect it to land in the potty after all. A simple “that’s right, wees go in the potty. Now let’s go and empty it in the loo” is quite enough to give a clear and kind message that your child has done as expected. An accident needs a simple “Oops! You have missed the potty. When we wet ourselves/wee on the floor, we need to clean up. Let’s go and get some paper and dry the floor” and then walk them through the process.

This is a deeply respectful approach. No need for upset or even overly enthusiastic reassurance. Keep this process very matter of fact. After all, even grown-ups have accidents sometimes so we need to help our children understand how to manage when they get in a bit of a pickle. Toddlers thrive on independence so you’ll be amazed how fast this down-to-earth approach works. You’re not looking for dry pants remember, just independence. Dry and clean pants will follow in time. Make sure you’re close and available if needed for wiping and washing hands but do respect your child if they request privacy - I certainly get terrible stage fright if I think someone is hovering outside my loo when I’m in there!!

Do not discuss your child’s wees and poos in front of them or clap and cheer (imagine if that were you …). Your whole approach and demeanour should be one of understated and simple expectation that your child will learn, like the rest of the family, to handle their own bodily functions and that help is, of course, available, if it’s asked for.

Should I use a star chart?

It depends on your child - some children respond well to potty reward charts. However, I am regularly asked to help parents who have run into difficulties with potty training and almost always they have been using a reward system such as a star chart. It’s easy to assume that, by rewarding good behaviour, you will build on it and gain repetition but that isn’t borne out in research, or my experience over 30+ years. Remember that, whenever you reward behaviour, you show your child that you didn’t expect it. Also, focusing too much attention on something which our culture and society sees as private can actually increase shyness and anxiety.

Rewards should be saved for behaviour that you didn’t expect, that goes above and beyond, such as when your older child washes your car for you. With toilet independence, our quiet pleasure that our expectations have been met is reward enough.

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