What’s the Poop?

Dear Mamas,

My son is 2 years old and has been evaluated by our pediatrician for a mild language delay, which we now think is due to some hearing loss. It seems to be minor, and he’s now working with a speech therapist twice a week.

Meanwhile, the other day after his nap I found him in his crib where he had taken off his dirty diaper and was smearing everything in sight with poop! I put him right in the bath and proceeded with the awful clean-up job, but I don’t know, should I have reprimanded him or something?

I’m worried that this is connected with his other issues and may be a sign of emotional problems. We have 2 other kids who’ve never done anything like this. Why is he doing it and how can we make him stop?

~ Grossed Out

Dear G.O.,

First, let’s ease your worry. Believe it or not, this is normal toddler behavior. Not necessarily common, but normal. They don’t call it the anal stage for nothing.

Two-year-olds are struggling with control of their bodily functions, and are totally curious about everything that comes in and goes out. That’s why toilet training begins around this age – kids are naturally learning to control when and where they pee and poop, and sometimes they’re willing to cooperate and put it where you ask them, but not always.

Toddlers are also quite intrigued with making a mess, and what better way to make an impressive mess than with … poop? As an added bonus it gets a really big reaction.

Now, for what you can do. The most important thing is to control your own reaction. If you make a huge fuss you risk reinforcing the behavior. Instead, try to keep your tone neutral and calmly say something like, “Yuck. Poop is stinky. It goes in the diaper or the potty, but we don’t touch poop.” Basically, you want to approach it like any other undesirable toddler behavior and not make it a big deal, but let him know you don’t approve.

Then, you want to do your best to limit access to the diaper. Change him as soon as you know he’s done the deed, so he has less time to think bad thoughts. Buy some ‘onesies’ or other clothing that makes it hard to get to. One-piece pajamas worn backwards may work. This is one of those times to work on your outsmart-the-toddler skills.

Sometimes smearing poop is a signal that your little guy is ready to start training, so if he’s giving you other signs – like letting you know when he’s going or about to go, asking for a diaper change, or going to a particular place in the house to do it – use it as an opportunity. If he goes on the potty, that’s something you can and should make a big fuss about. Rewards work well here, as you know.

Give your little guy ways to make acceptable messes, and then teach him to clean them up. Finger painting, homemade play-doh (flour, water, and salt), and mud play will help him get it out of his toddler system. Get all the kids involved and make it fun. Hopefully, you live in a warm climate where you can take this outside.

The good news is that even if you do nothing it will most likely stop on its own by about 3 ½ as this stage comes to an end — not that you want to wait that long. Even kids don’t like the smell of poop after awhile.

Good Luck!

~  The Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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One response to “What’s the Poop?”

  1. Hazel M. Wheeler

    My girlfriend’s mother tells a great story of a time when her own mom had invited a bunch of officers wives over to her home for tea. When the ladies peeked in on the children–both in backward pajamas– her uncle had unzipped her mother’s pjs and used HER poop to smear on the wall! In short, if the older sibling is smearing the poop, consider using a safety pin through the hole in the end of the zipper to fasten it in place!

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