Childhood regression seems to happen to every kid. Your toilet-trained 2-year-old may begin or having accidents at age 3. A baby who has been sleeping through the night for months may suddenly start waking up at 2 a.m. You might even have a child who returns to thumb-sucking or needing their favorite blanket within days of welcoming a new sibling.
“There’s no specific time when children regress,” explains Tisa Johnson-Hooper, M.D., a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health. “They can have a regression as young as 9 months. In every case, the goal of the behavior is to communicate to the parent or adult that something stressful has happened in their world.”
Childhood Regression Explained
Most childhood regressions are totally normal. After all, growing up is scary business. There’s a delicate dance between gaining independence and seeking the comfort and security of loving parents.
Rest assured, your kids aren’t acting out or falling back to make you mad. Instead, they’re hoping the behavior will garner them extra attention — and it usually does!
The most common regressed behaviors:
- Thumb or finger sucking
- Toilet training issues or frequent accidents
- Returning to a bottle or sippy cup
- Not sleeping through the night
- Separation anxiety from parent or caregiver
- No longer using words
- Baby talk
Regression Management Strategies
When your kids start reverting to behaviors you thought they had moved past, there are a number of things you can do to get them through the transition more seamlessly.
- Don’t panic: Whether your toilet-trained kid starts wetting the bed every night or your toddler returns to thumb-sucking months after kicking the habit, the worst thing you can do is freak out. Your child will eventually be able to move past the regression and master the skill again.
- Ask yourself what has changed: Whenever there’s a regression in your child’s life, look for a stressor. “The stressor doesn’t have to be big or life-altering to trigger a regression,” Dr. Johnson-Hooper says. It could be something as simple as a parent getting a new job, a sibling starting school or even accomplishing a new developmental milestone.
- Ignore regressed behavior: “Any reinforcement is good to a child, even if it’s negative, so it’s important to ignore regressed behavior as much as you can,” Dr. Johnson-Hooper says. If your son starts sucking his thumb while you’re holding him, put him down until he takes his thumb out of his mouth. Wake up to a child who is wet? Don’t make a big deal out of it but do insist she helps clean the sheets.
- Keep it positive: While you’re ignoring regressed behaviors, don’t miss an opportunity to praise your child when he or she does something right. So if a child who has returned to wetting the bed wakes up dry, make sure you tell her you’re proud she didn’t have an accident. Or if a child who has been waking you up in the middle of the night sleeps through until morning, say, “Great job staying in bed all night!”
- Be consistent: With parenting, consistency is critical. Make sure all caregivers are on the same page about how to handle regressed behavior. Take time to talk with anyone who watches your child and say something like, “We don’t respond to Johnny when he uses baby talk. Instead, we’ll say, ‘I can hear you when you talk in your big boy voice,’ and then ignore him until he speaks appropriately.”
- Anticipate regressions: If you know there is a big shift for your family on the horizon — the birth of a new sibling, a move to a new school or home, or even grandparents coming for a visit — take steps to prepare your child in advance. “Even if your child is excited about an upcoming shift, ask them how they’re feeling and reassure them of your love and their place in the family,” Dr. Johnson-Hooper says.
Keep in mind that some children are more sensitive to stress and change than others. Support them as they navigate the transition and handle regressions with grace.
If regressions persist or get worse after a few weeks or if the regressions are particularly sudden or extreme, such as an inability to walk or talk, consult with your pediatrician. In some cases, there’s a developmental, neurological or medical reason for the change in behavior.
To find a pediatrician at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Tisa Johnson-Hooper is a board-certified pediatrician and serves as the medical director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in Hamtramck and in midtown Detroit.