Parenthood is full of highs and lows. If your toddler is a poop smearer, it definitely qualifies as one of the bottom-ranking episodes. Yes, we know what we did there.
We have all seen the stories circulate on Facebook or heard our friends tell us about how their toddlers have taken a nap time poop and made a Van Gogh style painting on their walls and crib. Maybe we have even experienced it ourselves. In fact, if you’re coming to this article for advice then it’s probably something you’re experiencing right now (well, hopefully, you’ve cleaned up the poop first).
This can be an embarrassing and confounding thing for parents. Why would my child touch their own poop? Don’t they know how disgusting that is? Well, the short answer is no. Your toddler has no frame of reference for what fecal matter is and how unhygienic it is. They probably went to the bathroom in their diaper and since mom and dad weren’t around to change it or to stop them from touching it, they decided it was as good of a time as ever to explore this magical entity that just came out of their body. And just like any other form of sensory play, they took what they were touching and moved it around to see the effects.
Scatolia, the medical term for fecal smearing, can occur for various reasons. For some children, it can be a sign of abuse so it is often a challenge faced by foster or adoptive parents. It is also seen in children with special needs, or with autism. And, sometimes, toddlers simply take an interest in their own feces as something new and interesting to discover.
Scatolia, for the most part, isn’t something to be overly concerned about as a parent unless there are some underlying emotional or psychological factors to take into account. The below reference will walk you through understanding why your toddler might have an interest in their fecal matter, why they might smear it across your walls and furniture, and how to get them to stop doing it.
Erica Laframboise is a Behavior Analyst who has worked with children and teens for more than 15 years, specializing in behavioral disorders, Autism spectrum disorders, and developmental disabilities. She offers some insight and helpful tips for parents who are facing this challenge with their children.
Q. Why does my toddler smear poop everywhere?
A. All behavior occurs for a reason. In some instances, the reason will be clear, but at other times it may not be. What is important to keep in mind is that your child is demonstrating a challenging behavior because it meets a specific need for her/him.
There can be a range of reasons why a toddler might engage in fecal smearing behavior:
- Sensory: It might provide a need for relief, a calming sensation, or pleasing sensation (e.g. ‘It feels good.’)
- Attention-Seeking: Intent to socially engage or get a reaction from another person (e.g. ‘I get lots of attention from dad when I do this.’)
- Escape: Avoid a demand or task (e.g. ‘I delay bedtime’),
- Access to items: Want specific item/activity (e.g. ‘I get a bath.’)
It is important that parents rule out any underlying medical conditions that might contribute to this behavior by consulting with a physician. Some medical conditions that could increase likelihood of fecal smearing include constipation and hemorrhoids.
Related: The Ultimate Postpartum Poop Guide
Once medical conditions have been ruled out, parents/caregivers can began to explore possible reason(s) for why their child is engaging in this behavior. In order to determine the ‘why’ I recommend that parents/caregivers take ABC data collection to help understand behaviors by looking for patterns of when and in what conditions the behavior is occurring.
A= Antecedent: What happens right before the behavior?
B= Behavior: a clear description of the behavior.
C= Consequence: what happens right after the behavior (make note of actions/reactions of the caregiver/parent and child)
Here is an example of how an ABC chart looks:
Understanding WHY a behavior may be occurring is important in order to develop a plan to improve it.
Q. How can a parent/guardian help to adjust this behavior?
A. After collecting information using the ABC chart, parents/caregivers can then manipulate specific aspects of the environment (antecedents and/or consequences) in order to reduce or eliminate the fecal smearing behavior.
Here are some examples of how that might work:
- If the ABCs revealed that the child engaged in frequent fecal smearing at 7:30 p.m. daily, one strategy to implement would be to have your child go to the bathroom just before 7:30 p.m.
- If that ABCs revealed that after each episode of fecal smearing a parent gave the child a bath which the child very much enjoys, one strategy to try would be giving a sponge bath instead of a bath.
- If the ABCs revealed that the child received a lot of parent/caregiver attention following fecal smearing, one strategy to consider would be that the caregiver/parent avoid providing attention following the behavior by reducing eye contact, and not having any discussion around the event in the moment.
Remember: We are unable to determine the function of a behavior from only a single instance of the behavior. If fecal smearing only happened once, it may not warrant a further investigation.
Q. How should a parent/guardian deal with this situation in the moment?
A. Try to be as neutral as possible in the moment. Remember that there is a possibility that your child is engaging in this behavior to get your attention/to get a reaction from you (all attention is attention even negative), so the less attention directed towards your child in this situation the better. One simple way to gauge if your child might be seeking attention from you is to look for signs that they might be watching for your reaction, waiting for you to look or tell them to stop, laughing when caught in the act etc.
Avoid engaging in too much conversation/discussion around the incident in the moment.
Keep your emotions in check and try to remain neutral.
Once the mess is cleaned up, take some time to decompress. Self-care is important here. Have a glass of wine and watch your favorite show. This behavior isn’t easy to deal with: it’s messy, stinky, frustrating and very time-consuming. Be easy on yourself, and remember that in most situations (when medical concerns are ruled out) modifications to the environment can successfully change behavior.
Q. What are the ‘don’ts’ for how a parent or caregiver should deal with it, both in the moment and later.
A. Avoid shaming your child about this behavior. Avoid screaming, yelling or making threats, or punishing your child. Don’t involve your child in the cleaning up process.
If you feel like your child needs some external motivation to improve their behavior, you can consider having your child EARN a rewarding activity/item contingent on not engaging in fecal smearing. (e.g. sticker chart. Give a sticker if they did not smear everyday and once they earn X stickers they get a preferred activity/item)
Be consistent. Once you’ve decided on a plan and what modifications to the environment you will implement, be sure that all caregivers/ parents are on the same page and understand the importance of being consistent with the approach and implementing the strategies every time the behavior occurs. If the approach is not applied consistently, the behavior may not improve or may take longer to improve.
Watch for something called an extinction burst: If you’ve gained some reward (attention, a bath, etc.) every time for a particular behavior, the behavior will persist. If suddenly the expected reward stops coming, it’s likely that the person will not immediately stop the behavior. In other words, fecal smearing could potentially get worse (more smearing, more mess, or more frequent episodes) before it gets better.
An example of this concept is an elevator ride. If you ride the same elevator every day to get to your office, you get in, push the button (the behavior), and you’re rewarded by the doors closing and the elevator taking you to your office floor. One day you get in and push the button, and nothing happens. What do you do next? You don’t just stand there and wait, or take the stairs up. No, most people would push the button over and over, harder, faster, etc. That’s the extinction burst — this burst of energy before a behavior stops.
When you implement a plan of action, you can expect that an Extinction Burst will occur. Don’t let this derail your plan of action, the extinction burst won’t last too long as long as the plan continues to be implemented consistently.
Q. When is fecal smearing an indication of something else? When should a parent seek outside professional help — either for behavior, or therapy?
A. If your child is showing symptoms of constipation, itching in the rectal area or any other physical symptoms, seek out medical support.
If the behavior is not improving, worsening or other concerning behaviors are emerging, parents/caregivers should return to their doctor for additional guidance and/or seek the support of a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who can provide further assessment into potential causes for the behavior and implement a treatment plan.
Other tips/strategies that have helped curb this behavior include:
- Restrictive clothing that can make it hard to reach into diaper/underwear is a good preventative measure, or fitted clothing (some parents have had luck with putting their toddlers in one-piece rash guards that zip in the back).
- Footed zip sleeper worn backward.
- Wearing overalls backward.
These tips will give the parent/caregiver some extra time to stop and redirect attempts to smear. Toilet training might also help reduce the likelihood of episodes of the behavior in some children.
Erica Laframboise is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who has been working with children and adolescents for over 15 years, specializing in those with Autism Spectrum Disorders, developmental disabilities and communication and behavioral disorders.
She has a Master of Arts in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) with an emphasis in Autism. Erica is a member of the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis (ONTABA). Her experience includes clinical supervision of ministry-funded ABA based programs, assessment and treatment of severe problem behaviors, application of ABA strategies within school-based settings and delivery of parent training workshops.
Erica lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with her husband and son.