Potty Training Tips: MORE on Poop-Smearing: A Complicated Case

"What," you may ask, "is the most popular 'lurkers' topic at BabyShrink?" Is there a common theme that brings the most readers to this site? Yes, there is.

Every day, I check my WordPress "Stats" to see what parents have been reading on BabyShrink. I think it's hilarious that each and every day I get several Google "hits" from people entering in phrases like this to the search box:

My toddler smears poop everywhere, what do I do?

They end up on this page, which is my all-time most-read post. And if you've read the post, you know that I laugh from all-too-knowing experience.

But every so often, I get a question from a reader who needs more help with this problem; it's progressed past the point of my suggestions. So yes, dear readers, it's time for yet another poop-smearing post:

Dear Dr. Heather,

My three-year-old daughter has been smearing poop, and it has increased in frequency. Not only does she smear her poop everywhere, but she also has a corner in my living room where she, for the lack of a better term, "marks her territory." She knows when to pee on the potty and does it fine. But more lately, she will strip off her pull-up and go to that corner to either pee or smear her poop. I don't know what to do since EVERYTHING I have tried seems not to work. I have had extreme difficulty with her potty training, which her doctor said is normal due to the fact that she is extremely hyperactive and just doesn't want to stop. He says she is afraid to miss something. I realized that almost a year ago her father stopped coming around, and it has been almost a year since she began this frustrating habit. But it's gotten worse lately and I don't know if it's an outcry towards me because she is possibly mad at me for her father not being around?? Also I am a single mother and although I was able to quit my job and be with her recently i am still not able to give her my 110% attention all the time. I don't know...all I know is I need help. I can't handle this...nor can I STOMACH this anymore!! Thank you for your time.

"Tired of Cleaning Up After the Little Stinker"

Dear Tired,

Sounds like you have a complex problem here. If her pediatrician says there is nothing medically or developmentally wrong, you can try using some of these techniques:

First, try some concrete behavioral strategies. Does she have a usual time of day when she poops? Most toddlers do it about the same time each day, and only do it once. If she does, watch her closely until she's made her poop. Don't let her wander away from you unobserved until she has pooped. Then you can give her a little more free-reign after you know she's done for the day. Also, you can dress her in a more restrictive way until she has done her poop. Get a larger size onesie, with perhaps some leggings over it, to put her in until she's pooped. If she lets you know in advance that she needs to go, fine. You can help her get undressed and to the toilet. If not, it's OK for now if she goes in her pull-up.

You might also move around things in "her corner", making it a difficult or unappealing place to spend her time. Experiment with furniture in the room to see if you can re-configure it to "eliminate" that place where she usually goes. Change around the whole room so her association to it is also changed. Make "her corner" a more focal place of the room, so that it's not a hideaway, and she can't have any privacy there.

Don't make a big deal about using the potty right now. She's giving you mixed messages about being ready, and in that case, the advice is usually to back off from potty training. Let her be in charge of when she uses the potty. But do be clear with her that smearing poop or going on the floor is NOT an option. It's yucky. Mommy does not like to clean that up. But when she DOES successfully use the potty, make a big deal out of it. Hurray! What a big girl! It's so nice and clean when you go in the potty! Consider giving her a small treat (one jelly bean, for example) every time she does go to the potty, even if it's just to pee. And try not to be scolding if she goes in her pull-up. Just be matter-of-fact about it, and clean it up.

I also would not use punishment if she smears poop again. You might remove her from the "scene of the crime", since you have to sanitize it. Be serious, but neutral. Remind her where she should go, and that poop does not belong on the walls or the floor.

Also, it's important to give her plenty of opportunity to play with acceptable, squishy, messy things like finger paints, play-doh, even mud pies. She clearly likes the feeling of it; give her ample opportunity to make a mess in an acceptable way. Tell her when you're playing with messy things, "This is fun to be messy. We can be messy with paints!"

You ask about the impact of her Daddy leaving, and whether that is related. I can't judge that from here. But you can ask yourself about the impact it has had on YOU. If you have been upset, if things have been very different around the house, you can bet your daughter has picked up on that. But is it related to the poop-smearing? Difficult to say. If you need more input about that, I would suggest talking with a licensed therapist who has a specialty in working with young children. And if you're having trouble coping, please seek out some help. A little bit of good therapy can go a long way -- and help you to trouble-shoot when difficult times arise!

Try some of these strategies, and let us know how it goes!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Potty Training Tips: Handling The Grossest Problem Yet, Poop Smearing

BabyShrink readers Angie, Sharon and Stacy have emailed me over the past few weeks with the same horrified question: Why is my toddler suddenly smearing poop everywhere, and HOW CAN I GET THAT DISGUSTING BEHAVIOR TO STOP?! Although I tried to offer some suggestions, I had never experienced the same thing with my kids, so I really didn't have much "oomph" behind my answers.

And then the Great Karmic Finger pointed at my household. And that finger had poop smeared on it.

Our TT is now 2 1/2. He's kinda-sorta potty trained. He's healthy (minus one hernia, which I will update everyone on later in the week), developmentally on-track, and he's got the "easiest" temperament of all our three kids. But over the past few weeks, it's happened three times; he's pooped in his diaper, then reached in to decorate his crib with it. And it's the grossest clean-up job I've ever had to do.

Your story is similar. Your toddler is somewhat engaged in potty training. They're at the age when they can understand most of what we're telling them...and certainly understand that poop is yucky. Then all of a sudden, you discover your little darling has smeared poop all over the place. Reader Sharon tells her stinky story this way, "She's in her crib about to nap, and I hear the usual noises of her just talking to herself. Then I hear this: “Mommy, yucky.” So I go in there and see the worse scene of my life!!!! She apparently had a poopy diaper, took it off, and proceeded to smear the walls, her crib and everything in the vicinity with poop. I was mortified! I quickly yanked her up, stripped her down and got in her the bath as fast as possible. I had to call my husband and tell him to come home so I could sanitize her room. Ugh, it was awful!"

Is This Normal? Yes dear reader, it is. Not necessarily common, but normal. A 2-year-old is struggling with attempting to master his own body, to control it's functions, and is quite curious about his productions. (They don't call it the Anal Stage for nothin'!) Preschool teachers will tell you it's common to see children this age quite interested in messes, too. They can alternate between being quite the obsessive neat-freak, OR the poop-smearing opposite -- as they struggle to master this stage. I would say, however, that poop-smearing past the age of 3 1/2 -- 4 would concern me. An evaluation, starting with your pediatrician, should occur in that case.

How Do I Get It To Stop?! First, know that, for an otherwise typically developing toddler, this should be a time-limited, passing phase. Nobody likes the smell of poop. It's an experiment that is naturally self-limiting!

The most important thing is to control your own reaction. Don't overreact; you risk reinforcing the behavior. If Junior knows that Mom will FREAK every time this happens, he's got a potent weapon to use, when necessary! Instead, calmly say "Yucky. Poop is dirty. It belongs in your diaper or the potty. No more touching poop." As grossed out as you may be, take a deep breath (outside of the room!), clean up the offensive little beast first, and close up the room until you have backup. You'll need time, and someone to watch Mr. Stinky, while you break out the Clorox.

Next, it's time to get practical and LIMIT ACCESS TO THE DIAPER. Go out and find some toddler sized "onesies", or other one-piece clothing. Some creative parents have even put one-piece PJs on backwards to further limit access to the diaper area. Keep them clothed this way as needed, until the phase has passed.

Also, take it as a sign of interest in potty-training. Use it as an opportunity to review the proper use of the potty, and validate their interest in poop. "Here, make your poop in your potty. Then when you're done, you can look at it. We don't touch it, but you can look at it if you want to see what it looks like."

Finally, create opportunities for your creative genius to make acceptable messes. One of the hallmarks of this phase is the desire to make -- and clean up -- messes. It's how we eventually learn to keep things clean and organized, and how to handle all the messes in life. So it's a vitally important lesson to learn. Offer messy finger painting, kitchen mixing and squashing, and outdoor mud play, liberally. Talk about it, as you do. "I know you want to make messes. THIS is a good place to make a mess. I will help you clean it up later. Here, let's make a mess together!"

Hope that helps, Gang. Happy Cleaning!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert