Development regression in young kids – what it is and when to be concerned

Posted in Learning and Development.

Your toddler might be walking and then suddenly go back to crawling. Or perhaps your preschooler is toilet trained but now can’t stop having accidents. Regression in little ones can be frustrating and worrying for parents, so why does it happen and is it anything to be concerned about? Here’s what you need to know.

What is development regression?

Development regression is when your toddler or preschooler appears to be going backwards in areas of their development. This could be in their ability to feed, sleep, talk, walk and in toilet training. It can be confusing for parents who don’t expect their little one to revert back to a previous stage, instead of progressing even further.

The common causes

Progression regression

One common cause of development regression is due to your child’s progression in another area. This could be that they’ve just learned to walk and their speech may slow down as they concentrate on developing their mobility, or they might begin waking again at night because they’ve now mastered toilet training. This is perfectly normal and there’s no reason to be concerned if this is the case. Before you know it they’ll be back on the same level they were at before, or possibly even further advanced.

Change and fears

Regression can also be attributed to some form of change in your child’s life or environment. If you’ve have just moved house, changed daycares or welcomed a new baby, this can have an impact on their development. You may find they revert back to crawling, thumb sucking or baby talk.

Anxiety can also play a big part in development regression. It could be that your toilet-trained five-year-old may start wetting their pants again because they don’t like their preschool, are nervous about starting big school, or are frightened of the dark.

An undetected illness may also be a contributing factor to regression.

Toddler boy playing with blocks

When to be worried

Generally speaking, mild regression is nothing to worry about and in time your child should catch up and continue progressing. But in the rare case that your child’s development slows down dramatically or goes backwards with little to no sign of changing, you should seek out professional advice immediately.

According to Consultant Paediatrician Dr. Scott Dunlop, from Sydney Paediatrics and Kids Consult, by definition, true developmental regression (a more severe case of regression) implies a loss of skills, and although it’s uncommon in toddlers and preschoolers, it is a red flag.

“Children should generally follow a pattern of developmental improvement, not regression. Certainly, development can stall in a certain area whilst other areas progress, and then improve again – but losing skills is abnormal,” he says.

Cause for concern

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Global Developmental Delay (when a child is diagnosed with a lower intellect than what is considered normal for their age), are the most common causes of true developmental regression, according to Dr. Dunlop. There are also other rare conditions, such as inherited muscular problems, metabolic problems and genetic disorders which might be to blame.

“Any loss of skills is a cause for concern and should trigger a review with a GP or paediatrician,” he continues. “Children who are developing more slowly than their peers but are gaining skills can often just be observed, however true regression needs review and investigation.”

counsellor with little boy

Warning signs

If your child has reached the age of five or six, some of the signs that may indicate they need a professional assessment include:

  • Their development has stopped or regressed significantly over a long period of time
  • They don’t speak in full sentences or you have trouble understanding them
  • They’re withdrawn and don’t interact well with others
  • They have trouble getting to or staying asleep
  • It’s difficult for them to follow simple instructions
  • Their behaviour is particularly challenging or aggressive at inappropriate times
  • They still wet or soil their pants in the day
  • They have no interest in writing their own name or any other letters

How to help your child

If your child is showing some signs of regression there are a number of actions you can take to help them.

Don’t be cross: You might feel frustrated and impatient with your child if they suddenly take a few steps backwards, especially if other children the same age are much further ahead. Kids develop at different stages and usually catch up to each other in time. Remind yourself that it’s probably a temporary setback, and don’t be upset with your child or pressure them to progress as it could cause them to regress even further.

Identify the cause: If you know what’s causing the regression it will make it a lot easier for you and them to handle. Think about whether they’ve advanced in another area recently, or if there’s been a recent big change or incident occur. But if their development has stalled or regressed for quite some time then it’s best to see a doctor to determine if there is another cause.

Try not to panic: Remember that mild regression is all part of the development process. Just because they’ve stopped saying as many words as they did a few months ago, doesn’t necessarily mean there is something wrong. They’re probably just focused on learning another skill.

Seek professional help: If you’re ever concerned it’s best to speak with your GP, who may refer you on to a specialist to give your child access to a speech therapist, occupational therapist or a psychologist. Early intervention is best with these sorts of cases so don’t put it off if you’re really worried, as your child might end up struggling for longer than they need to.


Parent School footer dinkusNeed some support to be the best parent you can be? Our Parent School parent coaching experts can help. Click to find out more or book a one-on-one session.  


Get more babyology straight to your inbox