Regression Analysis: Wading Through the Frustrations of Potty Training

potty training

Re-teaching your child potty training after a backslide presents a whole different host of problems.

It is easy to believe that once your child is in underwear she will never don a diaper again. False! Potty training regression can happen. And it SUCKS!!! It’s frustrating and requires more patience than you may have (at any given moment). You will almost certainly shed more tears than your child, who will shed quite a few of them herself. All you want to do is get back to square one…but that modest goal feels unattainable, almost unimaginable.

This weekend, we visited friends whose son has had a potty training backslide. He is five and has been out of diapers for quite some time now. The issue seems to be purely physical. [TMI WARNING!] He had a major bout of constipation and is now having difficulty predicting when the train is a-rolling into the station. (I’m talking poop, people.) While we were at their house, either his mom or dad would have take him to the bathroom every hour or so to see if he needed to go. It was frustrating for both parents and child. They’d been through this phase already. It was done. They’d moved on. Why, they asked themselves, did they have to go through this crap (no pun intended) again?

I could not empathize more with my friends. My daughter also took this back step in potty training…this hidden step, that many parents are either unaware of or don’t believe will actually occur. That you have potty trained your kid once before does not make you an expert. This is a whole ‘nother animal. And it is a major pain in the ass! (Again, no pun intended.)

For us (and I say “us” because we all went through it), regression occurred shortly after our second child was born. There was probably some psychological component to it. There was certainly no shortage of people telling me that my daughter was just looking for attention. The thing is, she was perfectly happy to be in a pull-up again. She’d go about her day and usually use the toilet, but seemed to need the safety net her pull-up provided. She only made a fuss (i.e., the alleged attention-seeking behavior) when we insisted she wear underpants.

For some reason, my daughter could not pee without feeling like there was more left. She called it “the dreeps.” (Even writing it now sends a shiver down my spine. It sounds like a horror movie title that the characters only say in hushed tones…”Everything was fine, officer…then she got the dreeps.” ) Her pull-up could catch the dreeps; her underwear could not. When in underpants, she’d immediately feel like they were wet again and she’d run back to the bathroom. She’d sit there squeezing as hard as she could, insisting she still had to go. It became a self-fulfilling problem. She squeezed so hard and wiped so much, she actually gave herself a urinary tract infection. Even if it was purely psychological at some point, it became a physical issue. The downward spiral did not seem to have an endpoint.

My wife and I did not know what to do. We tried to give her time, to adjust to her whole world being thrown upside-down with arrival of someone (possibly) cuter and needier than her. We did not pressure her at all and let her wear the pull-ups. We assumed she’d want to get back into underwear. And, if the whole thing really was a cry for attention, then we weren’t giving her any and it would work itself out. This technique was recommended by a number of people and was bolstered in our minds by the fact that potty training had been so straightforward the first time. Back then, Grandma bought her some princess underwear and, a couple months later, she wanted to wear them. It took a week or so, but she got the hang of it and – bang – she was potty trained. Not so much the second time around. She did not want to get back in those undies.

We got frustrated and impatient. We needed to move on from the laissez-faire approach. We tried a sticker chart. We tried bribes. We tried peer pressure. It all failed. Miserably. We got the dreeps, lots of tears, and even more frustration. We resorted to putting panty liners in her underwear (we called them “underpants stickers”). They helped a little. At least she was in underpants, but the dreeps were still there. And she was still not in control of her body. She didn’t trust herself to know when she was going to have to pee or what it felt like to finish. She still wanted to be back in pull-ups, couldn’t go for a five minute drive without making me pull over so she could pee, and constantly clogged our toilet with all the extra toilet paper she thought she needed.

One day, I’d had enough. I decided to ignore just about everyone’s advice and really force the issue. I would not give her pull-ups or underpants stickers anymore. We would stay home until the problem was solved. She could wear underwear or nothing at all. I didn’t care. I just wanted the madness to end! Mostly, she chose nothing at all. And not only did we stay home all day, she stayed on the toilet most of the day. And the next day. It was a contest of wills. This standoff lasted a long LONG weekend. She basically fell asleep in the bathroom, making sure she was always close to a toilet. She came out to eat and not much else. Her steadfastness would have been admirable if it weren’t so damned annoying.

In time, we welcomed her back into the living room. She was still unsure of herself, but I think she missed us. She didn’t want to wear underpants; I still wouldn’t let her wear a pull-up. So, she bare-assed it for a while. Being nude made her more aware of when she had to go. As she gained confidence, we brought back the sticker chart for added incentive. Eventually, the dreeps disappeared and she was back in underpants! (The sticker chart and underpants stickers became quickly unnecessary.)

For us, regression was over (minus a few minor relapses). Our friends continue to struggle, but (difficult as it is to imagine) they’ll get through it. The next time we potty train will be when our son is ready. Hopefully, it will just be that once. If he regresses, we’ll deal with it. But it will SUCK!!!

—photo by Manish Bansal/Flickr

More from Dave Lesser, Amateur Idiot//Professional Dad:

Learning to Love Again: A Miscarriage, a Misconception, and a Second Child

Not So Great Moments in Parenting: Anger

My Daughter’s Crappy Artwork


About Dave Lesser

Dave Lesser is a former attorney who much prefers his job as a stay at home dad to two hilarious and adorable children. He is lucky to have an awesome wife who indulges and supports his obsessions, which currently include running Spartan Races and writing his blog Amateur Idiot/Professional Dad. Follow him on Twitter @AmateurIdiot.


  1. My older son also had a regresion. It was tough to deal with as he was too old for it. In addition, it felt like he knew what he was doing and simply did not care.

  2. Tom Williams says:

    I laughed a little as I saw the G Diapers ad at the top of the page, as I’m drinking from my G Diapers Kleen Kanteen water bottle

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