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The New Sibling (Total 100% Nuclear) Potty Training Regression

The New Sibling (Total 100% Nuclear) Potty Training Regression

By Amalah


We have a 31 month old little lady who is oh so stubborn. She was 90% potty trained a couple months back. Things have gone south since her baby brother was born 4 months ago.

We have here the benefit of the doubt that her regression was just related to the new family member and admittedly it was just easier to go back to pull-ups after weeks of taking care of a newborn and cleaning up accidents.

A couple weeks ago we went back to potty training boot camp. With promises of chocolate and a pet fish for success, We threw away the pull-ups and went naked from the waist down for a week and a half. We have an amazing daycare provider that was okay with this approach. Our daughter did great, no accidents at all outside of a nap-time poop daily in a pull-up. She was rewarded along the way and we were ready to buy the fish once we conquered putting pants back on.

Here is where things fell off the rails. We gave her undies and pants back and she is back to accidents. The most frustrating part of all of it is she doesn’t seem to care if she is wet. If we ask her if she’s wet she replies no and continues on playing and then throws epic tantrums when we attempt to remove said wet clothes. She also resists going to the bathroom when asked if she has to go potty, even if it’s been hours. On top of that when she is wearing the undies she has stopped telling anyone when she has to go.

Underwear-less in Minnesota

So I’ve done a lot (ALOT) of reading about potty training regressions, both for advice column purposes and my own personal purposes, because I’ve yet to train a kid who didn’t eventually regress at some point, for some reason or another. Sadly, despite reading every expert opinion on the subject, I’ve also yet to find a sure-fire magic-bullet solution other than: Stay patient, stay consistent, this too shall pass.


The birth of a new sibling is like, THE potty training regression trigger to end all potty training regression triggers. (Moving, a change in childcare routine, travel, or any other stressful life event like divorce, conflict in the home, etc. are the other big ones.) So at least we don’t need to Sherlock around for the cause of your daughter’s regression. Her world has just been turned upside down: she’s suddenly really and truly not “the baby” anymore and is questioning whether this whole “big girl” thing is worth it, or if it’s something she should resist. Look at how much attention that baby gets! Look at how great all the grown-ups think he is! Look at how easy he has it, just lying there in his diaper, and how no one ever interrupts his playtime to bug him about the stupid potty. This big kid thing is a RACKET, yo.

I will also humbly submit the hypothesis that 90% potty trained really means that your daughter actually wasn’t potty trained in the first place. Sure, you’ve seen a regression on her progress TOWARDS potty training, but it wasn’t really a completed milestone to begin with, but was a work still in progress. A work that you admittedly derailed by putting her back in pull-ups once the new baby arrived, and you couldn’t devote the sort of time and attention you were giving her (and the potty-training process in general) before. No judgment! No blame! You did what you had to do. But it might make it all feel a little less frustrating to reframe this regression as more of an INTERRUPTION of her training (with the bonus added challenge of new sibling stress), rather than a total regression of a mastered skill.

Her streak of successes, at least, does indicate that she IS ready to master it, which is good. Some halfway-there kids who regress completely after the birth of a sibling were not really ready to train at all, when you objectively look at how much the parents were involved in getting them to go before. Potty-trained parents, is more like it, and once the parental attention is focused elsewhere, the accidents start happening because the kid really didn’t have anything to do with getting their butt on the toilet in time in the first place.  So the key is (UGH UGH UGH) to stay patient and consistent. No rolling back to pull-ups. No anger or visible irritation when she has an accident (you don’t want potty training to add to her existing stress level).

Try to give her as much one-on-one special attention as possible, and keep the attention POSITIVE. Praise her over every small thing. Satisfy her desire/need for attention so she isn’t tempted to resort to seeking negative attention in the form of resisting the potty or having accidents. (“Do you need to go potty? Do you need to go potty now? How about now?” Yup, that’s some damn fine attention-seeking she’s doing, right there, plus attempting to find a sense of control in a world newly full of baby chaos.) Talk to her and validate the feelings you think she might be having, that it’s okay to feel sad or angry that things are different now, that you still love her and she’s still your special baby. Take her someplace special, just the two of you, no potty-reward required.

If she refuses to change out of her wet clothes and there’s no immediate NEED for her to change out of her wet clothes…well, maybe let her stay wet for awhile. This was a trick that worked with my youngest, though not immediately. He was another “90% trained” kid who abruptly went back to 0% for no particular reason. His preschool teacher suggested we not rush to change him after an accident. He didn’t seem to particularly care at first, but EVENTUALLY, he did. Or he just needed to come seek help with getting clean clothes in his own time, on his own terms. (That pesky I’m-in-control thing, again.)

(Tangent! That same teacher also told me not to call them accidents. She explained that kids hear “accident” and immediately equate that word with something bad happening — like a car accident or someone falling and getting hurt. She felt this undermined the whole staying positive “that’s okay, we’ll try next time!” attitude if we used a word with negative meanings when they didn’t make it to the potty. She preferred using words that just described what happened. “Oh, your pants are wet now, you went pee in your pants instead of the potty, let’s get dry pants and try again next time, etc.” It makes a heap-load of sense, when you think about it, but admittedly the “accident” terminology was too deeply seated in my brain by kid #3 for me to drop it at home.)

One last thought on the pull-ups/diaper thing. This is usually the biggest debate about regressions: Does caving and regressing them back to pull-ups or diapers help or hurt? In your case, going back to pull-ups CLEARLY hurt her progress, which is why a lot of potty training experts advise parents to avoid going back at all costs. My personal experiences and observations tend to agree — with regards to PULL-UPS ONLY. Pull-ups can really become more of a hindrance than a help for some kids — they send the conflicting message that “you’re a big kid now” while also being not all THAT different than a regular old baby diaper. They go on like underwear (and most of us talk them up to our toddlers as being different and a big-kid step when we introduce them), but your toddler can totally pee and poop in them with near total containment confidence. So maybe they leak a little or a design disappears off the front. Meh.

Rolling back to full-on diapers, on the other hand, we had success with. There’s no mixed message there: This is a diaper. Like babies wear. Because babies pee and poop in diapers and not the potty. If you don’t pee or poop in the potty, well, you’re going to wear a diaper. You do the rest of the math.

Keep the expectation on your daughter to stay dry during the day. She has accidents? Fine. But you KNOW she can do this and you won’t let her backtrack again. Maybe stop asking about going/being wet (you KNOW the default answer will always, always be NO) and be a bit more hands on and just physically take her to the potty when she hasn’t gone in awhile. Set a timer she can hear and don’t make it debatable — timer goes off, we sit on the potty for a few minutes. If you do it without tantrumming and go pee you get a reward. And then for naps and bedtime…maybe try going back to diapers. Call them “baby diapers,” change her where you change the baby, send the (matter-of-fact, non-shame-y!) message that hey, sorry, you’re not using the potty, so I’m going to have to put you in a baby diaper until you do. I know you can, though! Maybe after nap or tomorrow!

Be prepared for her to NOT CARE at first, or maybe to even welcome it (ATTENTION! I’M THE BABY AND I GET ATTENTION!), but hopefully she will care eventually. Because babies also don’t get pet fish. Babies aren’t allowed to eat chocolate. Babies can’t (go to the movies, the zoo, etc.).

Good luck! It’s frustrating as all hell, I know. But it WILL pass, and she WILL train, I promise. Hopefully this is simply a “darkest before dawn” last hurrah on her part that she will simply snap out of one day and get with the 100% potty trained program. (That also happens. Like a lot, actually. Sometimes I wonder whether anything we did really mattered, because all of my kids eventually turned on a dime and just…IT’S DONE. IT HAPPENED. IT’S OVER. THANK GOD.

Published May 14, 2014. Last updated May 14, 2014.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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  • Athena

    May 14, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    I maintain a small hope that our planned spacing means we can avoid this particular (and from all I’ve read here, particularly nasty) regression, with siblings coming a bit before potty training is likely to even start (beyond familiarising them with “this is what a potty is”, perhaps).

    Unless they can still pull this regression at four when *another* another sibling comes along which, god, I hope not.

    • Tricia

      May 15, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      I hate to tell you – that’s exactly what happened with our 1st and 3rd. Our oldest was a couple months shy of 4 years old when her second baby brother was born. Potty regression didn’t even occur to us since our oldest had been trained for over a year and our second child hadn’t started yet at 21 months. Lo and behold our oldest started having accidents 2-3 times a day. Eventually we made it through with patience being the only thing that worked. Good luck!

  • liz

    May 14, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Also, please get her checked for a bladder infection or UTI. It may be that she’s holding for a long time because it hurts to pee, which would go with the refusing to go when she clearly needs to.

  • MR

    May 14, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    My 5 year old has been potty trained for years, but sometimes she just gets so into what she is doing that she doesn’t want to stop, and she pees her pants a little. She occasionally did this at school too, and I told her she needed to stop what she was doing or other kids would notice and might not be nice about it. I’ll notice and tell her to go change her pants, and she always was like, “how did you know???” I explained and explained, but finally, one day, I picked up the pants she had just removed, and pointed to the gigantic wet spot and said, “I can see it! Everyone can see it!” I had been telling her this for months, but I guess I needed to tell her and show her at the same time, because she said, “Oh.” and hasn’t done it since. SMH. Kids and potty training. Anyway, I tell you this because it is my way of saying, “what Amy said!” Don’t change her right away. Let her feel the wetness, and let her get things wet that she cares about. Rinse her off with cold water (it doesn’t hurt, but just makes it not fun), and have her help clean up the mess. It will just take out the fun of the attention she is getting. The day my dd was sitting on her blankie that had just come out of the wash and peed on it, was the day she realized she didn’t like stuff getting wet.

  • Olivia

    May 14, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    “Potty trained parents”, yup. My just turned two and we started potty training a couple months ago. I think he’s doing really well considering his age, but it’s really more like elimination communication since I can’t rely on him entirely to tell me when he needs to go. 

    A couple weeks ago his progress regressed (not sure why) so I doubled down on taking him frequently even when he said no. In the last couple of days he’s been better about telling me when he needs to go and with my continued vigilance he has had accident free days again.

  • Carolyn

    May 15, 2014 at 1:27 am

    My son potty trained a few months ago, and the turning point for him was that if he was in a diaper OR underwear he’d pee in them and not care at all. But if he was totally naked, he’d hold it and then take himself potty when he needed to pee. So for the longest time, he just went commando and he did great that way 😉 When he wanted to wear underwear it was available, and when he decided to wear it he seemed like he’d figured out that just because you have fabric on you doesn’t mean that you can pee in it. You said your daughter does fine naked and has accidents when you put underwear on her, so …. any chance you can just keep doing a lot of naked time, and maybe try finding some leggings or shorts that she could wear without underwear? It might not make a difference, but then again, maybe it would! 🙂

  • Sigrid

    May 15, 2014 at 9:24 am

    We managed to potty train our then 30 mo just before her baby sister arrived and I knew I was really lucky it just worked… No advice to give, unfortunately, but I realize we might be less lucky with the next one… Hang in there momma! 🙂

  • DontBlameTheKids

    May 15, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Well, dang. The only potty training trick I know is to skip pull ups and go to underwear. Shoot, if that doesn’t work, I really don’t know what I will do with my second. So apparently potty training is hard? I’m sad now. Stay patient! Good luck.

  • Caroline

    May 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I agree with another commenter, get her checked out in terms of physiological symptoms such as UTI first, but assuming all is well, I’m afraid I wouldn’t tiptoe and nor would I ”not be negative”. I’d insist, categorically, that she sit on that potty on a regular basis, and put her there myself if needs be. Accidents wouldn’t be cheerful ”it doesn’t matter things”. I wouldn’t get angry as such, but let’s just say there would be very little said, just a very cold wash. I think you’re going to have to ditch the pull-ups actually, and also let her run around with nothing on the bottom as much as possible, it definitely helps them make the connection with needing to go. I would also reward for a concerted accident-free period, but in a very small way until you’d hit a certain number of accident-free days (or near misses where a genuine effort was made – I wouldn’t get het up about these, as long as she’s doing the right thing in theory), and then a big reward. If there’s obstinacy and regression after the reward, then it is removed. You absolutely have to mean business in a calm, un-shouty, but quite serious way or you’re sunk. That’s my 2 cents anyway!

  • Karen

    May 15, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    *sigh* I metaphorically fought over potty training with my kid starting the day she turned 2. It was such a relief when I just let it go and waited until it wasn’t going to be a power struggle anymore. Then we did what the above commenter said, went straight to underwear with complete and painless success.

    All my bribing and other efforts to force her out of diapers did earn me something though – the opportunity to deal with major poop problems for a whole other year. Won’t be doing that again.

  • Melanie

    May 15, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    We are probably two months out from being in the same situation so I’m sure I will be coming back to read all the comments soon. I have found with my daughter that if you ask if she wants to go potty it’s always a no and sometimes a fit but if I just say “time for a potty break” she is more likely to just sit down and go. 

  • traci

    May 16, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Usually when a child is purposefully wetting themself or other obnoxious potty behavior it is a control issue. Kids can’t control much, but they can control when/how/where they pee and poop (this is assuming they are potty trained). A new baby is hugely out of their control and comes with a host of other issues that are out of their control. The solution is to give the potty issues little attention-deal with them matter of factly and quietly-and find many ways to give her control in her life. This can be accomplished by giving choices for any and everything (note: for a small child limit choices to 2-3 options) like what to have for dinner, what activity to play with mommy, etc. I would include choices that involve the baby too, ways she can help the baby. Basically, give her some more power in her life and she’ll stop executing the only power she knows.

  • Amy

    May 19, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    One thing I did which I think helped, was to comment to the baby during diaper changes how I was looking forward to when he was big and could go to the potty like his older sibling. Oh what a mess diapers are and all the wonderful places we could go when he was “big”. Even let the older child hear me tell adults how the baby stage wasn’t my favorite especially when they were gushing over the baby’s cuteness. I just loved how the older child and I could communicate and play. Etc. somehow it means more if they over hear it.

  • Hillary

    May 20, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    One of the major causes of pee accidents is constipation. The fact that your little girl is pooping in a pull-up at nap time is a red flag that she could be withholding poop, thereby distending her bowels, and compressing her bladder. That will lead to incontinence. All the signals about needing to go get crossed when there is bladder/bowel compression like that. If you think about it, it sort of makes sense – we’re telling kids to hold their pee and poop and then go to the bathroom. If you hold your pee you really HAVE to eventually let it out. But it is possible to hold your poop, have the urge pass, and then sort of forget about it, which leads to bowel distention. We’re really trying to teach kids to feel the urge to go, hold it, and run to the bathroom. That bit doesn’t always sink in when it comes to poop. Now that you’re in your current situation, you could try upping the fiber and even adding a bit of miralax every day, then keep up with the reward chart for bathroom tries. It will take about 1-2 months for the bowel to shrink back down and for the signals to start working again, so be patient and consistent. Good luck. I really feel your pain. We’ve been dealing with this in my now 4.3yo since her brother was born when she was 2.5. It took us a realllllly long to figure out she was pretty much incontinent and it wasn’t a behavior thing or a regression. And that figuring out process required a number of tests for UTIs, bladder deformity, etc. An x-ray revealed some major poop blockages even though she went 2x a day and it seemed fine. :/ So, for the last 3 months we’ve been doing miralax and we’re down to an accident every week instead of nearly ever day. Progress!

  • Cara

    May 27, 2014 at 1:13 am

    Honestly, what finally turned the tide of repeated regressions with my kid was breaking the cardinal rule.  I let her see me get frustrated.  NOT angry, not punishing, not even guilting.  But, frustrated and unhappy.  (Let me emphasize this was well after we knew she physically could get herself to the potty in time.)

    After finding her sitting in a puddle for the second time in an hour, I could not hide my frustration while cleaning it up.  She asked if I was upset, and I told her that I was just really tired of cleaning up pee.  I then listed all the spots she had peed that day.  She listened very intently and said “that was not a good decision.”  I answered that it would be better if she got up from what she was doing and went to the potty.  

    Honest to goodness, that was the last day we had anything other than the rare didn’t quite get there in time accident. Since we had had weeks even months of potty use between regressions, it took me a long time to trust it.  But it’s now been a year and a half.  I really think she just needed to know this was top priority and an absolute expectation.

  • Amy

    May 29, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    great article, perfect advice, thank you!! Best I have read all evening!
    My DD is 5 YO and is “peeing in her panties” lots during the day. I will try giving her more one-on-one time and just time. sucks, but you’re right, some day it will be a memory. Thanks again!

    • Amber

      June 3, 2017 at 8:11 pm

      How did things work out? And did spending more one on one time with your child help solve the problem? We’re walking this same path with our 5 year old, and I’m starting to go a little nuts.

  • Meg

    June 3, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    The tangent about not calling them accidents reminds me of a funny story from when I was teaching first grade. Kiddos used to come up to me and tell me they needed the bathroom (all the way down the hall) and if we were in the middle of an activity/it wasn’t a good time, I would always ask if they really needed to go: “is it an emergency?” Kids started the get the cue that if they wanted me to know they needed the bathroom they could tell me it was an emergency. Then for our community workers day, we had a fire fighter come in and he talked about how he comes when people have emergencies. and all my kids looked at each other and laughed, and I realized they thought that “emergency” means you have to pee really badly.

  • Amber

    June 3, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    I have a question in regards to this. My 5 year old daughter has never had issues going to the bathroom or having accidents. She even succeeded in beating her older brother with no accidents at night. We just had another baby four months ago, and now our 5 year old is having small accidents almost daily. Is this normal? And what do we do about it? She’s never worn a pull up, and at her age I’d hate to have to start.