Lack of Progress in Toilet Training

by Carol Jordan

Throughout the process of toilet training there are periods of highs and lows, just as with learning any new skill. When a baby begins to be mobile she will first begin to crawl and work her way through a process of practicing and then mastering new skills until she finally achieves that goal of pure mobility: running! Through that process she will lose her balance and fall many times with mom and dad right there to guide the process and help her through the rough spots.

Toilet training is no different. New skills to learn associated with toilet training include:

  • Getting clothes up and down
  • Getting on to and off of the toilet unassisted
  • Getting pee and poo into the toilet
  • Wiping
  • Washing hands

While perfecting each of these, your child will experience will be ups and downs. He'll need assistance and guidance until the final skill of using the toilet (beginning to end) is mastered and every step of the process can be completed unaided. There may be times, however, that things seem too difficult or it may seem pointless to even continue trying. During these times try to remember that you never stopped encouraging your child to walk, and neither should we stop encouraging him to accomplish this goal of using the toilet unaided.

What should you do when it seems as though no progress is being made at all? Your child is doing so well one week and then having "accident" after "accident" the next? How can you handle those situations? To fully answer those questions we need to define each type of situation since each has a different method of correction.


Typical regression
A toilet training regression can be defined as a period during which a child regresses in the performance of newly learned skills. This is characterized by a period in which a child stops performing a skill for an extended period of time after having previously demonstrated the ability to successfully perform the skill. For instance a child who has gone 5 weeks with less than one "accident" each week suddenly has "accidents" every single day. Perhaps a child who has previously stayed dry through the night will begin wetting the bed or even suddenly refusing to wear underwear in hopes of getting a diaper or pull-up instead.

Regressions can be triggered by any number of things including, but not limited to the birth of a sibling, death of a close friend or relative, move to a new house (or town, or state, or etc..), divorce or separation of parents, or any number of other major life changes that can occur without warning. It's easy to see how major changes affect children in ways that can not always be anticipated, however some minor changes can have the same effect. Minor changes might be mom or dad changing jobs (even with no schedule change) or changing to a new bedroom. Even things like a younger sibling learning to be mobile or starting to talk might cause a regression to occur in response to the increased attention the sibling might get.

Dealing with regressions can be a simple process. Once you have identified the stressor -- or cause of the regression -- you must make allowances for that stressor and then back up in your method of toilet training. To help make this clear, let's look at two examples:

Jonathan has been asking to go potty consistently for a month. He successfully makes it to the toilet in time most of the time and has only two or three accidents each week. Suddenly Jonathan stops asking to go potty. His number of accidents has increased to at least one per day, sometimes more than that. During a discussion between Jonathan's parents and caregiver it is realized that Jonathan has recently been moved to a different bedroom and no longer shares a room with his older sister. It is agreed that the regressive behavior began shortly after the changing of rooms at home and that this must be the cause of the regression. It is also agreed that toilet training must continue at a steady pace.