Daughter Plays with Feces

Laura Markham's picture

QUESTION

Hi Dr. Laura,
My daughter is two. One half of a twin, which is a boy.

When she soils her diaper she has the need to "paint" things with it. Whether it be in her bed for nap or bedtime or if she is in the play room with her brother. We have told her it was naughty to put her poo poo on the walls or face and that she needs to tell mommy or daddy she poo pooed and we will put her on the potty. Or if she poo pooed in the diaper to tell us and we will change the diaper. She has put it on anything she can reach, bed, drapes toys etc.

We can't stop it from happening. We are getting not only frustrated but tired of washing and disinfecting sometimes up to twice a day. What can we do?

ANSWER

I know this is incredibly frustrating and unpleasant. You'll be happy to know it's also completely normal. Two year olds don't have the disgust reaction to feces that develops later, so they don't see anything wrong with touching it. What a great consistency, perfect for smearing! And how powerful they feel, that they can make their own clay/fingerpaint!

So how do you stop it? I guarantee you that punishment will just make it worse. Instead, prevent access. First, always put the diaper on backward so she can't undo it. Second, start always dressing her in onesies so she can't just reach into her diaper. Third, supervise her constantly when she's awake. Before you put her in bed, add pjs over the onesie -- the kind that zip up -- but put them on backward, so she cant reach them. Stay completely calm and loving as you dress her, don't act like it's a punishment, or you'll be giving her incentive to fight with you about it. Just be matter of fact that you're helping her learn not to play with her poop. Tell her "Poop goes in the potty."

This will probably break your daughter of her habit, especially if you also give her lots more opportunity to play with fingerpaint, playdoh and clay. She will probably want to smear the clay around, so give her a piece of paper on a cookie sheet with sides, and let her smear to her heart's content. Give her lots of positive affirmation about how good that feels:"You love to play with clay. Clay is good to play with."

IF this approach does not stop your daughter's behavior after a whole-hearted try, there is one more fallback strategy, but please don't try this unless everything else fails, because it is traumatic. I rarely recommend "negative reinforcement" but feces-smearing has a way of undermining the parent-child relationship and can develop quickly into a habit that otherwise takes months to outgrow.

When you discover your daughter in (or after) the act, remain completely calm and loving. Tell her "Poop goes in the potty. Guess we have to wash you up in cold water." Then pick her up and take her in the bathroom. Undress her, and put her in the tub. Turn on the cold water and clean her with it. (If you have a hand-held shower head, use that. But don't hold her under the shower, since two year olds generally are terrified of showers.) Like any reasonable person, your daughter will protest the cold water. Be sympathetic, and say "Let's get you clean quickly so we can get you out of that cold water! When you play with poop, you get cleaned in cold water!" Even the most determined feces artist is unlikely to need more than two cold washings before finding a new hobby.

Good luck,
--Dr. Laura