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The Potty Regression Battle of Wills Royale

The Potty Regression Battle of Wills Royale

By Amalah

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.


*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.

Published February 17, 2014. Last updated July 17, 2017.
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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