Ask an expert: How do we treat toilet training regressions?

Ebb and flow ... As your child focuses on the development of new skills, growth and development in other areas may ...
Ebb and flow ... As your child focuses on the development of new skills, growth and development in other areas may suddenly slow down - or even stop. Photo: Getty


We asked Essential Baby members what their child’s major issues are in the toilet training process. Here, Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, the Director of Learning and Teaching and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood and a mum of three, addresses a problem many families encounter.

• My child is resisting toilet training
• My child will only use the toilets in our home

How do we treat toilet training regressions? Our reward system isn’t working any more, and my child has gone back to wetting and pooing himself.

Dr Cathrine says: 

Early child development is often characterised by sudden spurts in skill development, interspersed with periods of little or no improvement. As your child focuses on the development of new skills, growth and development in other areas may suddenly slow down. At times, your child may even regress in their development, losing a skill that was recently acquired. 

It’s not unusual for children to experience regression during toilet training; they may start experiencing regular accidents, refuse to use the toilet or ask to be put back into nappies.

It’s normal and common for children to experience small setbacks with toilet training, so don’t be disheartened. For most young children, regression in skills doesn’t last very long, and they’re back on track within a matter of days or weeks.


Regression can occasionally be the result of an underlying medical condition, but more often than not it’s a sign of stress. When young children experience stress they often regress back to a point in their development where they felt confident and secure, or regress back to a behaviour that calls for greater parental involvement or support. It’s their way of saying “I need you” without being able to verbalise this.

Common causes of stress in young children are typically the result of significant life changes. These can include:

  • starting childcare or preschool
  • birth of a sibling
  • hospitalisation (of the child or another family member)
  • shift in caregiving (as a result of parental separation or death)
  • moving house
  • parental conflict.

How to deal with regression

The best way to deal with regression in the toilet training process is to ensure your child feels safe, secure and loved, and then help them get back on track.

Firstly, identify what may be causing your child to regress. Help your child find a possible reason for an increase in accidents. Perhaps the bathroom in their new house is a bit scary, or they’re worried that a new baby brother or sister is replacing them?

Be supportive and understanding. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, explain that you understand how tricky things have been for them. Keep changes to a minimum during times of potential stress; this may even mean taking a short hiatus from toilet training.

Communicate what you expect from your child, then make a plan to move forward. Once your child is feeling more settled and confident, and if there are no other problems, it’s time to restart training. Explain to your child that it’s time to start using the potty or toilet again. Depending on how independent they were with their toileting skills before the regression, you may only need to offer a few friendly reminders here and there and they’ll be back on track within a few weeks (or even days). For some children you may find that you need to return to the more structured and guided approach you adopted in the early days of training. Continue to praise their successes and remember to treat accidents lightly, no matter how frustrating this may be.

If your child’s regression continues for a month or more, it may be because they actually were not really ready to be trained in the first place. 

About reward systems

Reward systems can be effective in helping children regain their toileting skills. Support your child’s efforts with positive reinforcements, including hugs, praise and encouragement. Some children are more responsive to physical incentives like sticker charts or special treats, but these don’t work for all children.

The effectiveness of reward systems depends on several factors, including how desirable the reward or incentive is to your child, the way you implement the system, and, most importantly, your child's readiness and willingness to be toilet trained.

Rewards can be effective as long as they are not overdone. A child who only performs a skill to get a reward will very quickly stop ‘performing’ in the absence of a reward.  Rewards are a great way to help reinforce positive efforts during the early days of toilet training, but be careful not to continue to use these with the same level of frequency once your child becomes increasingly compliant and capable. Ideally, the motivation and desire to use the toilet or potty needs to come from within your child. Acknowledge successes with praise, by all means, but keep tangible rewards to a minimum, and let the notion of being a big girl or boy and the pride associated with greater independence be your child’s greatest reward.

Share your toilet training challenges and tips with other parents in our Toilet Training forum.