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The Potty Regression Battle of Wills Royale

Feb17

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Hi Amy.

I have a little over-3.5 year-old daughter who has been potty trained since about 2.5, give or take. We’re expecting her baby brother in April. She seems excited, thrilled even. She has many plans for him. She calls him “my baby.” But you know. Who knows, really?

So the baby hasn’t been born yet but she is already having the potty regressions. I figure by April we will be covered in pee.

She’s been having a LOT of pee accidents, specifically at home. At school (full-day preschool), she’s doing good, is dry 9 days out of 10, although her teachers do say she tends to not quite speak up about needing to go (she’s pretty shy) and doesn’t like to ask for help. It’s a Montessori schoool, if that tidbit helps.

Cut to home. She is clearly doing the “too busy” to go thing as she’s clenching her legs together and clearly holding it in. If we notice that and mention (very neutrally! I promise!) that she should go, or ask if she needs to go, she screams “I don’t want to!” or “No I don’t!”. I kinda find the “Don’t WANT to” telling, because I am sure that’s it. And then inevitably, 60 seconds later, she’s in a pool of pee (and very upset about it).

If we try to set a timer and say it’s time to go when the timer goes off, she still protests. We had set times for awhile: after dinner, before bed, in the morning that she also protests now. Especially in the morning, she refuses to pee first thing. Refuses. Tantrum city. When she has the accident despite screaming she is sometimes still denying it even happened. So remind her, doesn’t work. Ask her, doesn’t work. Ignore it and let her try to figure it out, doesn’t work.

One factoid of interest — when she does go, she tends to stay there for-ev-er. Like she seriously grabs a book and hangs out for a half hour reading and singing. We’ve been trying to limit that too, as I sometimes wonder if she doesn’t go because she thinks she’ll be in there for a long time. Apparently that’s a thing at school, too. But she’s also super slow with everything she does, hates transitions — definitely a stop and smell the roses kid. Which we try to nurture not squash, but can be frustrating.

She wears a pull-up to bed still, but honestly has woken up dry since about 15 months old. But whenever we take it away or she decides not to wear one (usually the latter), she immediately wets the bed, cause, of course.

So we’re at a loss. We tried a reward for 3 days in a row with no accidents. It took her about 2 weeks to get it. Next was supposed to be 4 days in a row but it’s been 5 days since the last reward and no accident-free days. We are super neutral in tone about the accidents (but I should admit, she says to me “I don’t like your voice!!!” even when I am just talking about it to her. Should I not even mention the accidents?). We clean them up as neutrally as possible. She helps clean. We praise her up and down when she goes all by herself. We gave her a new special big girl job at home on the advice of one of her teachers.

Poop tends to be a-ok, btw.

ANY thoughts? Just wait it out and keep cleaning?

Drenched In Urine.

Hmmmmmmm.

*stares at screen while thoughtfully tapping fingers on face*

*realizes too late that fingers have maple syrup on them*

I cannot lie, this one is a puzzler. There are so many things that it COULD be, and so many different tactics that MIGHT work and/or MIGHT backfire, that I’m already questioning my choice to publish this question at all, when I’m sure I could dig up something a little less difficult and wheel-spinny. But I’ve already copied and pasted and written a handful of useless wind-up. IT’S TOO LATE. WE MUST PROCEED.

There’s always the possibility that potty training regressions are not strictly behavioral. If your daughter hasn’t seen a doctor since the accidents began, I suggest you do that first. She could have (or have had) a urinary tract or bladder infection, which can very much cause control issues and also a fair amount of pain and burning, which can lead to potty avoidance. Even after an infection clears up, the problems and related accidents can linger for weeks or even months since kids have loooooonnnng memories about anything painful or unpleasant. (And yes, they can have an infection without you having any idea.)

That said, it’s of course incredibly possible that this IS strictly behavioral, and she’s acting out at home for…well, who knows why. All of the reasons. No reason at all. In my experience, there is no age more difficult or bewildering than 3 and a half.

So let’s say this is stemming from a control issue. Since I also have two kids in Montessori, I know it can sometimes be tough to fully embrace the sort of…hands-off-with-invisible-guided-direction philosophy at home, especially for things involving capable kids urinating in their pants all of a sudden. But since there’s such a stark difference between her behavior at school and at home, it might help in this case to figure out if you can institute some Montessori-like policies at home. My sons’ preschool actually doesn’t require children to ask to go to the bathroom — they keep two beaded “passes” by the door for the boys’ and girls’ room, and kids can take one and go whenever needed. Very empowering and “big kid,” and this might be something your very shy yet defiant daughter will respond to better than timers or endless prompts. Try putting a hook at her level and making a fun-looking potty pass, and tell her it’s up to her to take it when she feels the need to go.

Backing off the prompts and reminders won’t solve the accidents (at first), but hopefully will stop the tantrums, which…baby steps? Since she’s having accidents 30 seconds after pitching a tantrum ANYWAY (and upset about the accidents), I’d consider it a step in the right direction if you can at least eliminate the tantrum-based lies/denial — which sounds like a CLASSIC older-toddler-control/battle-of-wills and you will never, ever win at them. Let her be in control, even if you know she’ll fail. At home, put her in clothing she can remove completely herself. When she wets herself, don’t just make her help, make her do everything. Towels on the floor/furniture. Wiping back and forth. Clothes off and in the hamper/washing machine. Getting redressed all over again without assistance. (This is when you actually effectively clean up the puddle, when she’s not looking.) Make having an accident as time-consuming and irritating as possible FOR HER. This isn’t shaming or punishing, it’s just the crap SOMEONE has to do after she pees her pants, and since she’s a big girl, it’s just gonna be her.

The one thing I would try to control, I think, is the endless sitting on the potty. (Which I may be wrong here, given her personality, but that could be another sign of a UTI, since she might always have a low-level feeling of needing to “go,” even when she doesn’t.) 30 minutes is just too long for pee, and probably isn’t good for her muscles, AND yeah, it makes perfect sense that she’s resistant to stopping whatever she’s doing to go when it’s going to take that long. (Even though it’s her own damn ritual.) I’m not sure what the best way to go about exerting control over this part of her routine — no books allowed in the bathroom? a timer for 10/15 minutes and then just forcibly remove her? You might just end up shifting the prompt-related tantrums to time-related ones for a zero sum game of pee, so I could be totally wrong here. Readers/commenters? Any ideas?

Finally, my last bit of advice (that is more just me spit-balling than anything super sage or wise): Ditch the rewards. Dial back on the praise. She’s already potty trained. She knows exactly what to do and what not to do and FOR SOME REASON, is deliberately choosing not to. (Unless there’s a UTI issue. Then. You know. Disregard.) She could be using this regression to milk you guys for attention, both positive and negative. So remove the attention altogether. Institute the potty pass/no books in the bathroom rules and let her sort it out. Accidents are her messes to deal with. Successes can be acknowledged but are NOT the be-all end-all cause for celebration and praise and candy and yaaaaayyyy (like it was when she was first learning).

And then shift your positive attention to something new and different. Is she maybe ready for a small bike? Is she interested in learning to skate or play piano, or karate/ballet/some other sport? Some other fun big-girl goal she could focus on (and maybe overcome some shyness in the process)? I wonder if the main point of conversation at home simply stopped being so potty-potty-potty-centric, if maybe she’d lose interest in this particular flavor of control battling and it would go back to just being something that happens, just because it does. (And having her own outlet/activity that continues to be “just hers” after the baby arrives will be verrrrry helpful, believe me.)

Even if you don’t feel comfortable completely removing potty usage from some weekly goal chart or reward system, make sure it’s not her ONLY goal. I’ve found that the advice of “one goal for each year of age” is spot-on, and you only want one or two of those goals to be things you’re actively trying to work on. The rest should be ringers — things your child already does well and can be reliably praised for. The successful feelings will then keep them from feeling discouraged and rejecting the entire goal/behavior chart concept outright if they remain shaky on the other goals.

By the way, for the sake of completeness — when my middle kid went through the new sibling potty regression (that I believe ALSO stemmed from a stealth UTI or bladder infection, then snowballed from there into a negative/positive attention bid), our pediatrician told us to put him back in diapers for a mild, yet matter-of-fact dose of humbling shame. (He was having both pee AND poop accidents, and wasn’t at school yet, so it was a little different — obviously you can’t send your daughter to school in a diaper.) I have no idea if that’s something that might motivate her to drop this game — or exacerbate some underlying BUT I’M THE BABY!! thing she’s got going on. Maybe try diapers instead of pull-ups at night and see if she’s more motivated to stay dry if the alternative is something babyish?

Sorry to zig and zag all over the place without landing on the One! Surefire! Solution! I imagine you were hoping for, but man. 3 year olds. They are maddening. I can’t believe I’m going to have yet another one in like, four months. We are so in for it, again, like always.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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19 Responses to “The Potty Regression Battle of Wills Royale”

  1. Kendra Feb 17 at 1:23 pm Reply Reply

    Oh my gosh, what is it with 3.5 year old girls?!?! This is very similar to our situation. My 3.5 year old daughter does awesome on the potty, just fantastic. Except at night and nap times where she has pull-ups on. But getting her to ditch the pull-ups at bed is a full blown drama meltdown of epic proportions. I think we are going to just get rid of the pull-ups and go from there because I suspect she is just peeing in them because she can. Oh and she refuses to go poop in the potty. Driving. Us. INSANE!!!!

    That’s it. I am of no help. Just want to commiserate with the OP.

    • Morgan Feb 17 at 6:17 pm Reply Reply

      Just to echo the response above, because I, too, have a shy and strong-willed 3.5 year old daughter:
      Drama…meltdown…I love you’s…repeat
      My daughter has long peed in the potty but, despite doing it ten or so times, will not consistently poop in the potty. She asks for a diaper and like the OP, she will take forever to poop. She’s very shy, but sharp,verbal, and driven. She has zero interest in preschool (I am SAHM and she’s our only) and once I linked pooping in the potty with going to school (that she would need to be consistently doing so in order to attend). Recently it came to light that she remembers my saying that once and thinks pooping in the potty = us driving her directly to school. We are doing damage control on that idea now. 
      Just commiserating. 

      • Kat Feb 18 at 12:54 am Reply Reply

        Ha! This makes me laugh. I remember being this literal with something my dad told me when I was a little girl, I still think about it from time to time when I am about to tell my toddler something. Makes me laugh. I have no commiseries yet – my toddler isn’t yet ready to potty train.

  2. Katie Feb 17 at 1:57 pm Reply Reply

    Been there. Our daughter is almost 4 and man, new baby pee regression sucked (she was closer to 3 thn 3.5 but still). It culminated with an epic poop smearing event that included walls, couch, floors, tv and the cat. THE CAT. (Only one ever btw).

    The good news is that it passed. By the time baby was three months old. The bad news is that it started about 20 weeks pregnant and just got worse and worse until…poop. It combined with a sleep regression that I’ve mostly blacked out.

    We tried all the tactics above. You know what worked? My mom. She came over and spent the night. Her reaction with the first accident was more “naughty puppy in the paper” than “calm and neutral.” She stopped then and there. Honestly I don’t know why. I was just grateful.

    We got some superundies in colors she hated and some ugly underwear too. Once you have an accident you don’t get nice disney stuff – you get the generic. That helps too.

    • Claire Feb 17 at 3:43 pm Reply Reply

      That’s a really interesting read. Thank you.

  3. Lora Feb 17 at 5:43 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, maybe a UTI or behavioural, but I agree with Michele and the link she provided, could be constipation. We had terrible problems with my daughter for about 1.5 yrs (starting when she was about 2yrs old) holding poo and eventually pee. It was really bad– she could hold her pee all day and we’d have to do things like putting her in warm water to help her relax and let her pee out etc etc (I’ve blocked a lot of those memories!). We contacted the PEEP clinic http://www.peepclinic.com/ and after a half hour phone consultation put her on a laxative program for a few months (a few months so she’d get immediate relief, get regular habits, overcome the holding it, and for her bowel get back to normal size). We did not think it was constipation as Michele’s link talks about. She was all fine after a few days on the program (although it has to be continued for months, see above) and now she’s a regularly pooping/peeing 7yr old… that still has a scheduled poo time every evening if she hasn’t gone yet that day.

  4. Jeannie Feb 17 at 8:26 pm Reply Reply

    FWIW, my son had a major pee regression around the time his sister was born. He was four; he’d been reliably trained by 3. He didn’t hold it: he started peeing in weird places, like the trash can beside the toilet. And other places. Not good.

    I don’t really remember what we did (I know! Helpful!) but I do know we reminded him gently (with the garbage can) and not so gently (with the toy box. Ugh.) and it eventually all went away.

    What I’m saying is that this could totally be sibling related. And with some gentleness and not much else could just fix itself once her world rights itself again.

  5. Amanda Feb 17 at 10:30 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am sick of all the ’3 days and done’ posts and comments. My battle of wills with my then 2.5 year old began while I was pregnant with her brother. We were very non pushy and she seemed to be training herself (HAHAHA). Now here we are at 3.5 and finally she’s totally on board. After all the power struggles (she is highly ‘spirited’ and VERY persistant) what ended up working for us was completely backing off until she showed an interest, and then CAUTIOUS support and a sticker chart. I am not convinced it’s truly over, but I feel we’ve FINALLY made progress.

  6. Trish Feb 17 at 10:42 pm Reply Reply

    Yup. Sounds like my daughter at that age (who could not be described as shy in any way, but strong-willed? Yes.) She trained rather late and it was all a power struggle from day 1. I say, cautiously, that we are now on the upswing (she is just over 4), but we went through a period of repeated accidents at home (almost never at school), and even poop. We also made an interstate move, and I thought I was losing my mind (her little brother was nine months by then). The accidents started about 4 months after the move. Now looking back on it, I wonder if it had to to with particular growth spurts that he was having, where he suddenly required a different and more intense attention than he had before? Just thinking aloud…

  7. Katrien Feb 18 at 10:48 am Reply Reply

    My then 3 year old daughter started having lots of accidents too, making us wonder if it was school (too much? too soon?), the new baby brother or anything else we could think of. She was in fact constipated which seemed odd to us, since she did poop regularly. Apparently she didn’t do it correctly. She wanted to sit on the big toilet with her legs not reaching the floor not wanting to sit there too long cause there was too much other stuff to do! ;) So we had to make sure she sat nicely on the potty again and took her time and the accidents disapeared.

  8. Caroline Feb 18 at 11:00 am Reply Reply

    Assuming it isn’t a UTI (and I see it might well be that, in which case, clearly that needs resolving), then I would get a little bit harder about it. No. You don’t get to sit for hours on the toilet (it’s very bad for you to do that), if you wet yourself or throw a tantrum / get upset about it, you clean yourself up and/ or get washed with cold water (not ice water!! I’m not talking torture!! Just unpleasant), with very little kind ”don’t worry darling heart” and more ”I can’t be bothered, sort yourself out”. It sounds mean, but while she’s getting away with it, she’ll continue. We all do that, continue doing what we can get away with, why should a 3 year old be different? There are no rewards, no nothing for peeing normally, but it’s not fun when you don’t. Not cruel, but really not fun.

  9. MLB Feb 18 at 4:37 pm Reply Reply

    Loved the part about cleaning up the mess.  Not to shame, but because someone has to do it and it’s her mess.  I think this usually works – at least it has in my and friend’s experience with older kids that are having these regression issues.  

  10. TE Feb 18 at 11:50 pm Reply Reply

    Hi! I’m the question asker. Thanks for all these ideas. Definitely going to look into the UTI and also constipation, although it sure doesn’t SEEM like she’s constipated! You can set a watch to her bowel habits…

    We’ll also move to her doing all the cleanup and definitely no more rewards…we all forget all the time anyway. I don’t have the heart to be too cold or mean about it though, at least for now… She’s just way too sensitive of a kid for that.

  11. Brigid Keely Feb 19 at 11:02 am Reply Reply

    My 4 1/2 year old boy also had toilet regression. I think it was a 2 part deal:

    1) he didn’t want to stop what he was doing to take a few seconds or minutes to use the toilet
    2) he wanted to be in control of everything including the urge to potty.

    He had, and has, very obvious physical tells when he has to go, so we start reminding him when he’s displaying potty tells. He used to fling himself into screaming tantrums (and still does sometimes) but we had a talk with him about how we aren’t trying to be mean, we’re just trying to help him listen to his body which helped him. He’s almost five and he still delays pottying sometimes, and sometimes he still rejects our advice to go potty but usually a reminder (we’re just trying to help you listen to your body and what your body needs!) helps.

    When it doesn’t? We will literally pick him up and carry him into the bathroom… which I know a lot of parents will reject because of bodily autonomy issues. But the thing is, little kids need boundaries they can butt up against. They need rules and they need consequences to help them feel secure. He WANTS to be able to ignore his body’s urges but that’s not possible. He WILL void his bladder/bowels if he delays long enough. But when parents force the issue, he’s able to surrender that impulse, if that makes sense. He can try to fight his body but he can’t really fight us. So we say “If you can’t listen to your body on your own, we will pick you up and carry you in there” and he’s ABLE to give in.

    He complains all the way into the bathroom, but then he’s done and comes back and returns to playing. He hasn’t had an accident in months because of this (other than accidentally dribbling on his pants or something while using the toilet… and once urinating into/around the garbage can instead of the toilet while he was asleep).

    That said, my youngest brother had constipation issues that lead to bed wetting. So parents of kids with toilet problems? Look into that, too. Bodies! So mysteries and horrible!

    • Kate Feb 20 at 9:00 pm Reply Reply

      This is exactly my life right now. My guy will be 5 in May and I still occasionally carry him to the bathroom kicking and screaming. Once we’re there he slams the door on me but then he actually pees in the potty so I can’t make make myself care. 

  12. Carie Feb 19 at 1:30 pm Reply Reply

    My son is 3.5 and is fully daytime potty trained and I have an 18 mo still in cloth diapers. We have rules that he has to go before meals, quiet time, and bedtime. If he balks or refuses before quiet time, I tell him he can either go or I will put him in the “big, ugly, baby diapers.” Me pulling one out of the drawer is enough to get him to go right away. There’s no shaming or threatening, just simply letting him know what will happen. 

  13. Julia Feb 19 at 4:42 pm Reply Reply

    I was going to recommend reading It’s No Accident by Steve Hodges, but that Slate article is a summary of the book!  I’m a teacher and a parent bought me the book one year, it was very interesting.  Basically, your child can be constipated even if she is pooping every day.  Constipation leads to pee accidents…. he explains it better than that, but it’s worth reading as Hodges found constipation to be very common in his pediatric urology practice. 

  14. Kate F Feb 22 at 11:50 pm Reply Reply

    I just wanted to say, for moral support, that my 3.5-year-old son is generally nuts now (I was prepared for this phase by Ask Moxie calling the age “The nadir of human existence”), and fights HARD against using the toilet, even though he’s also thrilled to be in underwear. Who knows. I’m cknvinced they are out of their minds at the moment. (So much crying. Soooo muuuuuch cryyyyying.)

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