Children who regress

Children who regress
Your child is wetting the bed again or asking for a pacifier. Why are they suddenly acting like a baby?

Children sometimes respond to particular situations by reverting to behaviours they’ve already outgrown. This is called regression. For example, a toddler might start wetting their pants again, insisting they can’t fall asleep at night without a parent, using baby talk, asking for a pacifier, or asking for help with a task they already know how to do on their own.

Why do children regress?

Any event or situation involving change can cause a child to regress. They may find transition periods stressful and need a bit of time to get their bearings. For example, they might have trouble adjusting to the arrival of a new baby in the family, the start of kindergarten or elementary school, their parents’ separation, the loss of a loved one, or a big move.

To deal with the unknown, the child turns to familiar coping strategies, even if it means taking a step backward in their development. Reverting to a developmental stage that they know and have mastered helps to ease their anxiety. This sudden reversal in behaviour is usually short-lived.

In addition, since young children have difficulty expressing their emotions in words, they tend to react with their body when they’re upset. By adopting regressive behaviour, they’re unconsciously attempting to gain control in a situation where they have no control at all. They find comfort in temporarily returning to their younger self, and afterward, they’re able to continue their forward development.

Let’s say a family has just welcomed a new baby. It’s normal for a child of any age to feel anxious and jealous in this situation. Even if they’re well prepared for the arrival of a little brother or sister and are excited about it, their behaviour may change for a few weeks. They need time to get used to their new role and make sure that their parents still love them just as much.

How long does regression last?

Though not all children experience regression when confronted with a major life change, it’s still considered a normal part of child development.

Regression usually lasts a few weeks and may fluctuate within that period. For instance, a child who exhibits regressive behaviour one day may act their age again the next, only to regress once more a day later.

In addition to observing how long the regression lasts, it’s important to consider whether it’s affecting any of the child’s developmental milestones. It’s not a big deal if, say, once or twice a week for a month or more, a child reverts to asking a parent to stay with them at bedtime until they fall asleep. However, if they’re asking for their bottle again every day, in addition to wetting the bed and being afraid of the dark, it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s triggering these behaviours.

When does regressive behaviour usually occur?

Children can regress at any age. Naturally, kids develop more coping strategies as they get older, which means they get better at expressing their emotions verbally and managing stress.

However, it isn’t abnormal to see some degree of regression in children aged 5 or older. Regressive behaviours in older kids can be subtler and may have less of an impact on their day-to-day functioning. A classic example is the child who goes back to needing their blankie or favourite stuffed animal after having outgrown it for some time.

How should you react?

Remember that some adults isolate themselves or take days off when they’re going through a difficult time. Some children do the same thing: they keep to themselves for as long as it takes to adjust and bounce back.
  • Accept your child’s regression while they adjust to a new or stressful situation. For example, if they want you to stay by their side until they fall asleep, it’s okay to stay for a little while. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should go out and buy a pacifier if your child asks for one. Help them cope in other ways if needed, such as by rocking them in your arms instead of giving them a pacifier.
  • Give your child positive attention. For example, if your child has started wetting the bed again, be supportive and praise them when their sheets stay dry. Don’t draw too much negative attention to their regressive behaviour.
  • Avoid criticizing your child. This won’t do them any good or help them stop acting like a baby. You should also be careful not to overemphasize the fact that they’re “the big kid” now after the arrival of a younger sibling.
  • Try to understand what your child is expressing through their regressive behaviour. Pay attention to the changes happening in their life and help them learn to adapt.
  • Observe your child to get a sense of their emotions and put what they’re feeling into words. Reassure them that you love them and that you’re always there if they need you. Here’s an example of what you might say: “I see you want me to hold you and give you your blankie. I know that makes you feel better. You must be worried because we have to take care of your little sister now, but we’ll always be here for you.”
  • Be empathetic and responsive to your child’s needs. They need time to adapt to their new situation. The better prepared they are for the changes to come, the less stressful the situation will seem.

When should you consult a professional?

Regressive behaviour is not a diagnosis in and of itself, and there’s no fixed criteria for how long regression should last.

It’s important to consult a professional (e.g., a psychologist, psychoeducator, social worker, special educator, or physician) in the following cases:

  • Your child’s regressive behaviours are interfering with their learning and overall development. An example of this would be if your child were refusing to part with their blankie and therefore couldn’t do certain activities (e.g., drawing or crafts), or if they were using their pacifier so often that, for several days or weeks, they weren’t able to speak properly or play.
  • Your child has been regressing in multiple areas for several weeks. Their behaviour could be due to anxiety.
  • Despite finishing potty training several months ago, your child is frequently wetting their pants. They may have developed a urinary tract infection.

Things to keep in mind

  • Having to adapt to a new situation can be stressful for a child. Regressive behaviour is a way for them to regain a sense of control.
  • Regression is considered a normal phenomenon in child development.
  • It’s a good idea to consult a professional if your child’s regression lasts several weeks or is interfering with their learning and development.
Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Julie Rioux, psychoeducator, services for children aged 0–5, Hôpital en santé mentale Albert-Prévost
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: February 2024

Photo :

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. “Potty training regression.” 2022.
  • Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec.
  • Gueguen, Catherine. Pour une enfance heureuse : repenser l’éducation à la lumière des dernières découvertes sur le cerveau. Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, 2014, 304 pp.
  • Larcher, Nadège, and Juliette Sausse. J’apprivoise les changements : déménagement, changement d’école, famille recomposée … Montreal, Éditions Bayard jeunesse, 2021, 80 pp.