How to Cope with Regressions

Just when you think you have sleep, toilet training, eating or behaviour sorted out… Think again!

It’s now known that the brain can form and change throughout our lives, with the most rapid and explosive period of brain development occurring from about three weeks post-conception and continuing in varying stages of intensity through to around the age of 25. The intricacies of brain development and their influence on motor skills, learning, speech, memory and your child’s emotional landscape are fascinating areas to explore, and may also help calm and soothe your own adult brain when confronted with the frustrations of children’s regressions.


Research shows common ages for sleep regressions occur around 4 months, 8 months, 18 months and 2 years. Disturbances to a sleep routine may result in your child fighting sleep at bedtime, waking through the night, or too early in the morning. It usually passes within a few weeks.

Causes of sleep regression can include developmental advances (“I’m so excited about all the new things I’m learning!”), separation anxiety (“I need you right here!”), over-tiredness (“I’m too wired to sleep!”), newfound independence (“I can crawl! Look at me crawling out of my cot!”), family changes (“My new baby sibling arrived and I want your attention back!”), teething, changes to schedule, such as dropping a day-sleep, or imagined fears.

Keeping as calm and patient as you can, sticking to consistent routines and modeling a positive, accepting attitude to changes are all effective ways to help your child through these short-lived times. Avoiding screens for at least an hour before bedtime and where possible sharing bedtime duties with a co-parent can also help manage everyone’s exhaustion.


Just when you think nappy days are behind you, your toilet-trained child starts having accidents again. This is very normal, especially for children who toilet train early. All sorts of emotional upsets or changes can trigger these regressions, which don’t usually last long and require patience and understanding to get back on track again.

Don’t punish your child for accidents or bedwetting; these incidents really are out of their control and you could easily make the situation worse by expressing displeasure or dishing out punishments.

Clean up accidents with a minimum of fuss, and be sure to offer positive reinforcement for successful toilet visits or when your child displays other good habits. Sympathise with them – perhaps share a story of how you went through a similar regression with toilet training as a child, and how you got through it. Set regular times for using the toilet as part of a consistent routine. Help your child to feel supported in reaching the toilet training milestone all over again; your gentle encouragement can work wonders.


Another potential regressive state common in many children is the development of pickiness or fussy reactions to meals, after initial enthusiasm for certain food. In the toddler years, many kids go through phases where only certain types of foods are acceptable, and others rejected outright. Older children come under the influence of their peers, friends and siblings, and acceptance of foods may vary accordingly.

Experts warn against making a fuss, pleading or bargaining with your child at these times. Rather, they encourage parents to simply offer the same food again another day, perhaps preparing it in a different way.

Getting adventurous in the kitchen can help children of all ages overcome resistance to foods, which are often borne of reactions that have little to do with appetite. Sensory issues beyond taste are often at work. Reactions to texture, smell, appearance, as well as the all-important emotional state may be firing around your child’s growing brain at meal or snack times, which may produce reactions the supervising grown-up can easily find illogical and frustrating.

It’s important to encourage children to listen to and respond to their own body, and appetite. Setting a good example by eating well and offering healthy foods is vital to encourage good lifetime eating habits. Changes in childhood eating habits are to be expected, so stay calm, and don’t let the fussiness throw you off course.

Should we worry about regressions?

Thumb sucking, tantrums, gross motor movement, speech… there are plenty of developmental areas in which children may experience a temporary set-back. Regressions are often caused by progressions in another area, such as speech development slowing down when the child learns to walk. Illness (undetected or otherwise) can also play a role, as can anxieties caused by changes at home or in the child’s daily routine.

Mild, short-term regressions are usually nothing to be concerned about. Your child will catch up and sometimes experience a surge of progression as a result. But you should seek professional advice if your child’s development slows dramatically, or goes backwards with little to no sign of changing. True developmental regression implies a loss of skills, and this may be a sign of autism spectrum disorder or global developmental delay, or rare conditions such as metabolic or muscular problems, or genetic disorders.

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