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Recommended reading Toilet learning and regression Stages: 3 to 5 years

Age expectations

You will find more information on toilet learning in the 25–36 months section of this resource called Learning to use the toilet.Opens in new window The first sentence in this recommended reading says, ‘At some time between 18 months and 4 years of age, most children show they are ready to start learning to use the toilet.’ Therefore, that information is still relevant for this stage of a child’s development.


What may be different now is when a child has been capably and confidently using the toilet for some time and then unexpectedly regresses to bed-wetting, or wetting or pooing their pants. This regression can be a common challenge at this stage, so revisit the general guidelines in the ‘Learning to use the toilet’ information.

Try not to make a fuss; it’s no big deal. Keep calm and definitely resist the urge to draw negative attention to it. Adapt to whatever the situation may be.

It might be about something straightforward like drinking too much before bedtime, in which case solving the problem is a lot simpler to achieve. Or maybe they’re very busy during the day — perhaps they’re attending an early learning centre and missing a daily nap. Being overtired may see them fall asleep so soundly at night that they sleep through the signals that would usually tell them it’s time to get up to the toilet. In this case Dad or Mum could try waking them and taking them to the toilet when they are heading to bed themselves.

Stress can cause regression

There are many situations in a young child’s life that can be stressful for them. Encourage parents to talk through what they’ve noticed and what they think might be going on for their child or within their or the wider whānau.

Being around stressful situations can have an impact on them too. Arguments, raised voices, swearing and doors being slammed are all things that they will pick up on and can upset them even if the harsh words are not directed at them.

What may seem slight to adults can be upsetting for a child, and they may not be able to put their feelings into words, so the changes in their behaviour can be a sign.

Changes in their routines

Young children can feel stress because of a new situation or new people in their life. Visitors, a new baby, a new babysitter, a new home or flatmate, Mum going back to work, a new early learning centre or even a change in the routines they’ve become used to can all cause anxiety for them.

This toileting behaviour may be a warning signal to whānau that their tamaiti is disturbed by something or someone in their lives. If parents themselves can’t seem to identify anything within the whānau, maybe the changes have happened elsewhere. They might have to ask their child’s teacher or babysitter if anything different has happened that may have had an emotional impact on them.

Awareness and timing

It can be frustrating for parents, too, when a child seems unperturbed by the toileting accidents or even unaware there is anything amiss. That’s why watching and monitoring carefully when and where they happen is helpful, especially if parents are struggling to find an obvious reason for the regression.

Think about the timing of any accidents. For example, is it when:

  • there have been late nights or broken sleeps
  • certain visitors have been to the house
  • the child has been at specific places?

Building a picture of the ‘when’ and ‘where’ can help to identify possible causes, but if there’s nothing specific then suggest they arrange a check-up with their child’s doctor or health nurse.

Constipation can also cause changes in toileting behaviours, as can a change of diet or the introduction of new medications, and it can be easy to overlook these types of changes.

Encourage whānau to talk with other professionals. If they are unsure about what to do, try calling:

  • Healthline: 0800 611 116
  • PlunketLine: 0800 933 922

It’s also worth revisiting the Getting ready for toilet learningOpens in new window page (25–36 months) in this Parenting Resource.

SKIP resources that focus on toileting challenges might be helpful to share with whānau too:

One of these tips reminds us that some kids still wear night nappies well into their primary school years. Another says that it’s worth investing in a decent mattress protector.

Tips for Whānau supporters

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