Potty Training Regression

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My 2 1/2 year old has been potty trained and successfully using her little potty for almost seven months. In the past two weeks she has refused to use it and has reverted back to hiding and using her panties to both pee and poo. We try to remind her to use the potty, but it has to be her idea, not ours. She does better in public or when we go somewhere. She will even tell us, but at home it’s like she’s protesting it. How should I react (or not react) to this? Advice from my mother-in-law was to firmly tell her, “no, do not pee in your panties,” but that’s not working and neither is ignoring it. I would appreciate any advice, thoughts, and help anyone might have. Thank you!

Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Melissa of White Noise: Congratulations on helping your daughter learn to use the toilet! Potty learning is a process which has natural ups and downs. It is very normal for a child to master toileting for a period of time – often long enough for parents to feel comfortable that the process is “finished” – and then to regress. Sometimes this is correlated with a big change in a child’s life, such as the birth of a sibling or moving to a new house. Other times, it is not. Often some type of regression happens just before or after a new developmental milestone is reached or a new molar pops through. It is also common that at around 2 1/2 to 3 years of age, previously independently toileting children will start to become very engrossed in their play, which sometimes results in accidents.

It is important to remain as calm as possible each time your child chooses not to use the toilet for her elimination needs. The same principles which applied when you were initially teaching her to use the toilet also apply when she regresses: read stories about using the toilet, demonstrate how to do it, talk about it in positive ways, and when she has an accident, remind her gently where pee and poop goes. There is in fact no way you can control where she chooses to eliminate, and being overly stern is generally ineffective because of this. It may encourage a power struggle, which is counterproductive. Patience is key, as is consistent, positive talk about independent toileting. Try to offer choices with regards to toileting, such as offering the choice between a toddler toilet or the big toilet, or if you live in an area and climate where this might be appropriate, give her the option to go outside if she likes. Try to be patient! It is frustrating to feel setbacks, but toilet learning is a journey!

Here are some additional tips for toilet learning in the traditional (non-elimination communication) way:

  • Read stories about using the toilet which speak about it in positive terms.
  • Have your child spend some part of each day with no bottoms on.
  • Read stories to your child as s/he sits on the toilet.
  • Shop for cool underwear together, and once your child is ready (is aware of his or her elimination and knows where it should happen), put daytime diapers away and use underwear. Switching back and forth is confusing, although sometimes if a power struggle develops it is better to go back to diapers for a week or so and give toilet learning a break. Generally, however, it is more effective for toilet learning overall if you stick to underwear and simply carry an extra change of clothes for your child, as well as a wet bag for clothes that get soiled.
  • Encourage lots of drinking, to increase the frequency of elimination along with awareness.
  • Celebrate any elimination, at first, to establish a positive attitude towards elimination; even if pee is on the floor, point out its appearance to increase awareness of it, and speak about it positively.
  • Calmly clean up accidents and talk about where pee and poo belongs.
  • Encourage trying to go on the potty after meals, upon waking from naps, and first thing in the morning.
  • Demonstrate toileting. If you are comfortable doing so, allow your child to watch yourself, your spouse, or their siblings use the toilet, and talk about what is happening. Every family has varying levels of modesty, but demonstration of elimination is very effective with toddlers who learn so well from modeled behavior.
  • Little boys sometimes respond well to being encouraged to try and hit Cheerios which are dropped in the toilet.
  • Celebrate success! Phone Grandma to share the news, clap, and do a ‘potty dance’. Hooray!
  • Be patient with regressions. These are a normal part of toddler learning!

Jennifer from Hybrid Rasta Mama: I feel your pain! I think a lot of children go through this, especially those who potty-learned in the first half of their second year.

I experienced this with my daughter. It was the exact same situation as you are in. She had been happily using her potty for months and then all of the sudden she not only refused to use it but would pee on the carpet in her room. She would also only poop outside. She had no trouble using the restroom away from home. It was baffling and frustrating, to be sure.

What I ultimately decided to do was to give my daughter the choice to go back to wearing her cloth diapers or to wear underwear and use the potty consistently. She chose diapers, which lasted about a week. After that, she announced she was grown up and done with diapers.

I did not make the choice a big deal. I let her know that I understood that right now, using the potty was difficult for her to do consistently but that I was not enjoying all of the extra work of doing laundry. I explained that the more laundry I had to do, the less time I had to spend with her. More clean up meant less time to play with her.

I let her know that if she had a concern about the toilet itself, I really needed her to let me know so we could find a solution. I also made sure that she knew that I loved her and would respect and support her decision. I then dropped the subject and let her lead the way.

Two and a half is a transitional age. Children are asserting their independence. They want to be in charge of their lives. They are pushing against babyhood but struggling to grow into that “preschool” age. Potty regression can by a side effect of all these developmental challenges. It is one of the three things that they can truly control (food and sleep being the other two).

As frustrating as it is, continue to remain gentle and supportive and follow your daughter’s lead. If she does continue to soil her underwear, get her involved in the clean-up process! When my daughter started throwing family cloth in the toilet, I had her fish it out. That solved that issue. Often times young children really do not understand the effect their actions have on others until they are gently held responsible for their actions.

Having said all of this, it certainly is possible that your daughter is going through something in her life that is bringing about the change in potty behavior. Has seen be subject to any recent trauma? Has she been uprooted? Is all peaceful on the home front? Is there a rhythm and predictability to her day? Have you been busier than usual? It is important to look at both major and minor changes to see if it is possible that something has triggered this behavior. Children act out in a wide variety of ways and potty regression certainly tops that list.

I would like to suggest one resource that might help you gain some additional perspective. The No Cry Potty Training Solution is probably the only book I would ever recommend to anyone facing a potty learning setback. The author devotes a whole chapter to addressing setbacks and I personally think she provides some really insightful material. She is gentle, flexible, and really spot on in her assessments.

Good luck to you!

Erica from Child Organics: I have experienced a similar situation with my son. He seemed to be potty trained, but then he just stopped using the potty for his bowel movements, preferring to find a corner and go in his underwear. We were baffled and confused. I am embarrassed to say that I turned to bribery in an attempt to get him back to using the potty. Well, that didn’t work, and as you stated in your letter, it needs to be their idea. Sometimes it is helpful just to know you are not alone in this struggle. Many parents have been where you are. Would you believe that Elizabeth Pantley says that over 80% of all parents have toilet training setbacks?

Regression is normal and can happen for many reasons. Often regression is associated with developmental leaps. Maybe your child will take a break from focusing on potty training to develop some new language abilities or take a growth spurt. She may then happily return to using the potty.

In other cases, regression may be associated with some resistance to the act of using the bathroom. With my son, I could associate the exact day he stopped pooping in the potty. We were on vacation and he pooped in the potty at the hotel. After flushing the toilet it started to overflow and ran all over the floor. I didn’t think it was traumatic at the moment, but looking back this had a negative influence on his willingness to use the toilet. This must have frightened him or startled him in some way to where he did not feel comfortable using the potty for pooping anymore. This was also the time my husband changed jobs, resulting in a different work schedule. This didn’t help matters, as it seems that any change in the child’s routine or schedule may trigger a change in using the potty.

There are a few simple things you can do to make this transition time easier on everyone. Gently offer several opportunities throughout the day to use the toilet. When accidents happen, we encourage our son to take part in the process of the clean up. He needs to pick out his clean underwear and help flush the toilet. It is also helpful to be prepared. We make sure we have extra pairs of clean underwear and a change of clothing with us when we travel in case of any accidents.

Patience and understanding can go a long way. Dealing with regression can be a very frustrating time for parent and child. It is helpful to be as flexible and relaxed as possible. Have you ever noticed that when we start pushing, they start resisting? Perhaps it’s best to look at this as part of the process. This is an excellent opportunity to trust your child and enjoy the parenting journey.

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