"How did he get the brown finger paint out of the tub?" I thought before approaching closer and realizing that my toddler was not finger painting with paint; it was poop. This was not first and has yet to be the last time one of my toddlers has removed or simply reached into their diaper to smear, paint and plain out play with their poop. Poop smearing certainly isn't the most common toddler behavior in the book, but it's not exactly uncommon either.
Why in Clorox's name would my toddler play with his or her own poop?
It's kind of a could be one or the other or both explanation here. Many toddlers start having fecal matter fun when they begin potty training. Your toddler has a great deal of focus placed on his or her butt and what comes out of it at the stage in life. As a result something your toddler likely never really paid much attention to is suddenly a highlight of their day. Curious about the brown excrement many toddlers poke a finger in and find it sticks, and then can be smeared and wiped all over the place. This leads to the second possible cause. Some toddlers also discover the poop smearing behavior before potty training simply from putting their hands in their diaper or mastering the diaper removal art. Curiosity brings them to wipe and smear toddler appreciation for messes and "art" prompt them to continue. You could see how both could factor into the "why?" answer most parents get upon finding a poop masterpiece fresh completed, does little for the "why me?" sadly. Pain in the butt aside, this is a normal albeit disgusting toddler behavior and is almost always short lived. Thank the horrible smell for that one.
Is poop playing dangerous to my toddler's health?
It could be. Urine may be a sterile substance but fecal matter is far from sterile. The average poopy diaper is about ¾ water, 1/3 decomposing dead bacteria, indigestible substances (like corn skin), live bacteria, fats, dead cells, intestinal mucous and other bi-products of the digestive tract. It's the 1/3 that presents the danger of bacterial infection if your toddler gets it in their mouth. Many forms of food poisoning for example are a result of improper hand washing after bathroom breaks. In most cases the worst you could be facing if your child places poop covered fingers in their mouth, besides a severe desire to puke yourself, is food poisoning like symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea 12-48 hours after).
What can you do to stop poop smearing, painting and other diaper content misuses?
What not to do:
I was pretty shocked to find how many parents resort to the cold shower method with poop smearing toddlers. This would entail rinsing the poop off your toddler in a cold shower. This falls majorly under the do not do category. First off, a mom who recently made the mistake of making her use of cold shower discipline public was charged with child abuse. Second, cold showers can have negative psychological effects on the child, especially at toddler age on top of the fact this method only teaches the child poop painting comes with punishment, not why their behavior is unacceptable or what they should do instead.
This is also another situation where as hard as it is, you have to save your OMG-seriously?-That's-disgusting reaction for when your toddler isn't around. Shock value goes a very long way with many kid's this age and they will do it again just to see your reaction if it amuses them.
What to do:
When poop happens:
When you catch your toddler mid-smear or admiring his/her work simply calmly pick them up and carry them to the tub. Explain that this is a no-no because poop is icky and goes in the potty or our diaper and rinse them clean with WARM water. You don't have to give a warm, comfy or fun rewarding bubble bath, just a suds up-rinse off clean. Then a short time out often helps so you can clean up the mess and they can think about the mess.
To avoid future fecal fun:
Prevention is the most useful tool in a poop painter's parent's world. You can start by eliminating the ability to remove diapers if your child is not potty training. A single piece of packing tape does the trick. However, many kids will still stick hands into their diapers even if they can't fully remove it. This does limit poop level access but doesn't eliminate them. One piece clothing such as jumpers, overalls or jammies work the best to cut off access to the diaper entirely. You can also use toddler sized onesies (shirts that snap at the crotch) with pants; this will make it obvious when your toddler is trying to get a finger in there. If you aren't potty training, now may also be a time to start as you can praise pooping in the toilet, giving your child a more rewarding alternative to poop smearing.
Finally, finger paint, the real stuff, by allowing your toddler to make actual messes that aren't of the stinky variety and don't come with a time-out, you give them another acceptable outlet for their desire to make messes and art.
You may also enjoy:
Moms support cold showers for poop smearing
Mom charged with child abuse for cold showers
How to stop poop painting in toddlers