Your child is wetting the bed again or asking for a pacifier. Why are they suddenly acting like a baby?
Children sometimes react to stressful events by exhibiting behaviours from earlier stages of development. For example, they may start wetting their pants again, talking like a baby, asking for a pacifier, or feeling like they can’t fall asleep without a parent at their side.
Why do children regress?
All periods of transition that require a young child to adapt are potentially stressful for them (e.g., the arrival of another baby, starting kindergarten or elementary school, parental separation, grieving, moving). In some children, these events can lead to regression, a sudden reversal in behaviour that is most often temporary.
Young children need time to adjust to new and stressful situations. Reverting to a stage of development that they know and have mastered helps them feel secure. Since a child still has difficulty expressing their emotions in words, they tend to react with their body.
For example, it’s normal for a child of any age to feel anxious and jealous when a new baby arrives in the family. Even if a child is well prepared for the arrival of a little brother or sister and is happy about it, their behaviour might 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.
Duration of regression
Regression in children can vary in duration, but it usually lasts for a few weeks. In addition, regressive behaviour isn’t always constant.
It’s important to consider not only how long the regression lasts, but also whether it affects one or more of the child’s developmental milestones. For example, a child who reverts to asking a parent to stay until they fall asleep at bedtime once or twice a week for several weeks is not a cause for concern. On the other hand, a child who consistently wants to drink from their bottle again, in addition to wetting the bed and being afraid of the dark, may deserve more attention as to what might be causing these regressive behaviours.
Age of regression
Regression isn’t necessarily age-specific. Of course, children develop more coping strategies as they get older, which means they become better able to express their emotions verbally and manage stressful events. However, it is not abnormal to observe some regression in children aged 5 or older. Sometimes, regressive behaviours in an older child are subtler and 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?
- Accept your child’s regression while they adjust to the new or stressful situation. 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.
- 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. Do not give unnecessary negative attention to your child’s regressive behaviours.
- Avoid criticizing your child. Reprimanding them doesn’t do any good and won’t help them stop acting like a baby again. You should also be careful not to overemphasize the fact that they’re “the big kid” now that they have a younger sibling.
- Pay attention to what your child is expressing through their regression. Listen when they talk about how they’re feeling and support them as they adjust.
- Observe your child to get a sense of their emotions, and put what they’re feeling into words. Then, reassure them of your love and availability. Here’s an example: “You want me to hold you and give you your blankie. I know this comforts you. You’re worried because we have to take care of your new little sister now, but we’ll always be here for you.”
- Be understanding of 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.
- Don’t worry. Although not all children experience regression during major transitions, it’s still considered a normal part of child development.
When should you speak with an expert?
It’s important to understand that regressive behaviour isn’t a diagnosis in and of itself, and that there aren’t necessarily any criteria for how long regression should last.
Regressive behaviours that interfere with a child’s learning and overall development are of greater concern. For example, if your child absolutely refuses to part with their blankie and this keeps them from doing other activities (e.g., drawing or crafts), or if they use their pacifier so often that it prevents them from speaking properly and playing for several days or weeks, you should consult a specialist to ensure that the regression does not continue.
Likewise, if the period of regression is prolonged, it’s best to consult a health care professional. A doctor can determine whether your child has a urinary tract infection if they start wetting their pants after months of being potty-trained.
If your child regresses in other areas (e.g., wanting their pacifier, being afraid of the dark, showing changes in behaviour) and if the period of regression continues for several weeks, it may be wise to consult a psychologist. They will be able to give you sound advice and provide solutions to your child’s anxiety.
Things to keep in mind
Having to adapt to a new situation can be stressful for a child, and they may react by regressing.
Regression is considered a normal phenomenon in child development.
If the regression lasts several weeks or interferes with your child’s learning, it’s best to consult a health care professional.
Scientific review: Julie Rioux, psychoeducator
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: June 2018
Sources and references
Note: Links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, use search engines to find the relevant information.
American Academy of Pediatrics. “Regression.” www.healthychildren.org
Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Institut national de santé publique du Québec, Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
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.