The difference between normal regression and a problem

From “they're so big!” to “When did they learn to walk?” any members of your toddler’s fanclub who don’t see Baby every day are probably starting to get used to how fast they grow, how much they grow, and how impossible it is to keep track of them as they do it. But what happens when they don't move forward? A little regression can be a normal part of a child’s development as they learn how to respond to stress, but in some cases, regression can also be a cause for concern.

What causes regression?

No young child’s development progresses in one straight line, and for most children, there are many quick spurts of developmental growth followed by long stretches of slow-and-steady. In many cases, young children have moments of regression in skills, or forgetting skills that have been recently acquired. Often, minor developmental regression is a stress response that often happens as a reaction to a big change in a child’s life. The change that’s causing stress might be obvious, like a move to a new home, or the arrival of a new sibling, or a major illness or death in the family, but it can also be more subtle, like a new caregiver at their daycare, or a change in their schedule. A minor regression can be a young child’s way of asking for a little extra help or support during a difficult or stressful time. It’s not always easy to identify the reason for a minor regression, but it can help to mention to your child that you notice the change, and that you’re confident they will be able to master whatever skill has regressed again soon.

Especially when children are younger, more short-term or minor regressions can happen at the same time that children are mastering big new skills, like speaking, walking, or potty training. These can be a totally normal part of development, and usually don’t last very long. For something to be considered a true regression, it generally has to be a new habit, not a one- two- or three-time accident. On the other hand, regressions that are not short-lived could be a sign of major stress like an infection, illness, or underlying developmental disorder, and should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible.

There are four different areas of development where toddlers experience regression pretty regularly, and those are in sleep, eating or feeding habits, and potty training.

  • Regression in eating or feeding: Regressions that have to do with food can take different forms based on what point a child is at in terms of development. Eating or feeding regression often goes back to the phase just before the current one. This might mean wanting to drink from a bottle after already having transitioned to a sippy cup or going back to using fingers after starting to use utensils, or expecting to be fed after starting self-feeding, but can also mean picky eating, or to only eating certain, inoffensive foods. Feeding regressions can be a child’s way of reaching for something comforting, or of trying to exert some control over their environment.
  • Sleep regression: Sleep regression is more common in younger children, whose sleep schedules are more in flux as they grow. In younger children, sleep regression is often linked to growth spurts or learning big skills. In toddlers, though, sleep regression, or waking up during the night, is often a stress response. Teething pain can also cause wakeful nights, although it should only last a few days.
  • Potty training: Potty training can be a long process, so a toilet-training set-back probably shouldn’t be considered a regression unless a child has been potty-trained without any accidents for at least a few months first. Until that point, an accident is generally just part of the process. An isolated accident also doesn’t count as regression in potty-training, since it’s only a regression when it turns into a pattern.

The bottom line

Although it’s normal for a child to take the occasional temporary step back in development, it’s a good idea for parents to take note of these regressions, so if they continue for too long, or a child experiences regression across a number of different developmental areas, they can speak to their child’s doctor about it.

On the other hand, major regressions in language or social skills are never normal and should be evaluated as soon as possible by a pediatrician. These regressions could be a sign of a developmental or neurological disorder like autism spectrum disorder or pervasive developmental disorder. Immediate evaluation and support is key as it has been shown to improve outcomes. When in doubt, there’s no harm in checking in with your child’s pediatrician.

  • Christina Montoya Fielder. “When Regression Comes with a New Sibling.” The Mother Company. The Mother Company, September 11 2014. Web.
  • Deb Lonzer. “What to Do When Your Potty-Trained Child Suddenly Isn’t.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, December 4 2014. Web.
  • “Developmental Delay or Regression.” Children’s Health. Children’s Health, 2016. Web.
  • “Regression.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Web.
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