At night, my son smears poo on himself and his bed
I get upset but he does not seem to care. It has been going on for five weeks
Apart from all this, he is a happy little boy who is full of fun
Question: I am worried about my son (who was two a month ago) who has developed a disgusting habit. At night time, when he has poo in his nappy, he removes it from the nappy and rubs it on the sheets and even on his face.
It is really disgusting to wake up in the morning and see him and the cot covered in poo. I get upset but he does not seem to care or be bothered. However, when I have strip the cot and clean him under the finger nails, then he gets upset as he does not want me to do it.
I hoped it was a one-off behaviour, but it has been going on now for five weeks (and sometimes he does it twice a night) so it has become more worrying. He does seem to be in control of it. At first he used to smear the poo on his teddy, but because he did not like it being taken away to be washed, he then stopped doing this.
Also, he is potty trained during the day and has got the hang of this – we just keep a nappy on a night in case of accidents. Apart from all this, he is a happy little boy who is full of fun and who seems to be growing up normally in every other way.
Answer: Having your toddler smearing faeces is one of the most unpleasant and disgusting habits you can deal with as a parent. However, it is a relatively common behaviour that is associated with a toddler’s stage of development.
At that stage, toddlers are exploring the world and like to feel new textures and materials.
They have not yet developed the disgust reaction that should be their response to poo, so it is treated like any new texture they find in their world and a new sensory experience associated with their body. Most normally developing children grow out of the habit quickly though it can take a bit longer with children with specific development delays or autism.
Below are some ideas on how to manage as a parent and to help your son move quickly out of this habit.
Try to prevent the problem through restrictive clothing
Some parents have a lot of success in preventing the smearing habit by selecting restrictive clothing at night. You could put your son’s nappy on backwards to it is harder for him to open it or you can put tights on him over the nappy or you can put him in a onesie that opens up at the back with a zip so he can’t open it himself. If the onesie opens up at the front you can consider putting in on backwards so this further restricts his access.
Experiment with what clothes work best for you. If you are lucky you will find some restrictive clothes that prevent the problem completely until your son loses his habit naturally.
Supervise your child closely during the day
Keep a close eye on your son during the day so you get in early before he smears. For example, if you spot him putting his hand in his pants, you quickly correct him – “poos are dirty, hand outs now”.
Then you make sure to distract or redirect him to do sometime else, eg “come over here and play with your bricks”.
Avoid getting angry when your son smears
Though it is a very messy problem, that really puts you out as a parent, it is important to try and avoid getting over angry or upset at your son when you discover him smearing.
Being angry can backfire as it inadvertently gives your son attention (albeit negative attention) for the behaviour.
This can make him defensive or hide the behaviour in the future.
Instead you might correct him directly, “poos are dirty and only go in the toilet”, or “we don’t play with poo, that is dirty”.
You can show some disgust on your face as a means of modelling to him the appropriate disgust reaction but your tone is not punishing or angry.
Make sure he gets no reward from the behaviour
Make sure your son gets no reward for the behaviour. For example, if when he smears he gets a warm bubble bath and lots of lovely attention from you, then he is getting rewarded by the cleaning.
Some parents recommend giving their children a cold shower after the smearing so the cleaning is uncomfortable for the child.
While I do not recommend any punishment (as this is counter productive and damaging if you are very negative towards your child) it is important to make sure the cleaning process is at least neutral and possibly mildly unpleasant (eg so the child associates cold water with smearing and thus is motivated to avoid the behaviour in the future).
Give your child plenty of time for messy play
Set up lots of play times for your son where he can experiment with messy play such as using clay, play dough or slime. This will give your child space to explore their interest in exploring textures, squeezing and squashing, etc.
You can also dress your son in a good smock and expose him to finger paints and let him paint with his hands and even his feet.
Setting up legitimate opportunities for messy, sensory play like this will give a fun (and non disgusting) way to learn, enjoy and relax.
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– Dr John Sharry is co-founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will delivering parenting and professional workshops on helping children overcome anxiety in Dublin on 13th April and 20th April 2018. See solutiontalk.ie for details.