So your darling toddler has begun the unsanctimonious art of spreading his feces like he’s Picasso with poop, huh? I know you’re probably lowering your head into the neckline of your shirt, hoping to the high heavens that nobody else knows it’s your kid smearing the guts of his planted tree throughout what feels like every crevice of his bedroom. Just so you know, I see you.
I too have been taken aback, not only from the smell, but from the surprise of walking into my toddler’s room only to find it looking like Hershey’s highway on a ninety degree day. You might be like me — crying over crap (literally) every single day, and feeling defeated as you curse under your breath and scrub the umpteenth poop smear off a once-untainted nursery wall.
Yet, even when we’ve been there with our own turd sprouts, it’s not a topic we feel comfortable discussing with fellow moms and dads. I mean, how does one parent say to another, “So, does your kid wipe his shit all over his bedroom walls, bed, carpet and their body now too?” No? Okay, good. Mine either…
It’s a sensitive, almost personal, topic, and no matter if it’s short- or long-lived, we find ourselves asking, is this normal?
As it turns out, YES. This can be a totally normal, albeit disgusting, part of raising toddlers. And in terms of medical literature, parents of dukie-artists shouldn’t feel so alone. Because even though it’s not a widely-discussed topic, fecal smearing (or scatolia) is actually rather common among children, and you can find a way to get to the bottom of it.
Why do they do it?
Scatolia can happen for a variety of different reasons, and sometimes there is more than one cause, which can make it much more difficult to understand. The faster you figure out the “why,” the sooner you will find ways to keep your little one from keeping the browns inside their diaper.
Certain medical, behavioral and psychiatric issues can make toddlers want to smear their feces (i.e. autism, sensory processing disorder, PICA, GI issues, constipation, OCD, anxiety), as can a past history of sexual abuse.
If all of these can be ruled out, look at when your child is spreading his feces the most, and try to find a pattern. Is it happening during naptime or bedtime? It’s not unusual for toddlers to smear their feces during a time when they are lacking stimulation. And if they are already lacking stimulation during the day, they might compensate for it by getting hands-on with their poop for play.
When my daughter started doing this, it was done during those hours where her surroundings were quiet and she was alone. Being able to identify this pattern with her, as well as how she was playing with her feces, made it easy to identify that she was a child who needed more stimulation than most others.
To her, she was lacking that stimulation during the day, so she tried compensating for it by getting hands-on with her poop for play.
How do I stop it?
When it comes to children who have autism or sensory processing disorder, or even the toddlers who just need a bit more stimulation in their day, setting aside more time to engage in sensory play can make a big difference. Playing with warm slime, play dough, shaving cream, or even adding sensory-friendly toys into their bedroom for quiet time can be a great outlet for stopping scatolia.
Restrictive clothing, such as sleepers or onesies, can be a useful tool to help keep the poop mess contained until you can give baby a change.
Although fecal smearing is exhausting, messy, and the worst thing in this world to clean up, it’s important not to scold your child when they do it. As we all know, some kids need more attention than others. These are the toddlers who will go about getting that attention by whatever means are necessary, even if the attention they receive is negative. After all, negative attention is still attention.
As hard as it may be, try to remain neutral, yet stern, with your child when they do this. Through your tone, you can let your toddler know that smearing their poop isn’t okay without screaming at them. Providing them with minimal attention while you’re cleaning up the mess is the way you want to go.
Speaking of cleaning up… though it’s unpleasant, cleaning your toddler shouldn’t be a traumatizing event for all involved. With that being said, make sure you don’t accidentally reward them for such behavior. If a child makes a mess of themselves and receives a warm, sudsy bath with lots of bath toys right after, they will begin to associate the two things as going together. Some parents might suggest that you clean them up with cold water to “teach them a lesson,” but this is unnecessary, cruel, and a step too far. A warm bath free of any toys does the trick without the tears.
Positive reinforcement can work wonders when it comes to scatolia. When your child doesn’t smear his poop during the normal times that he would, make a huge deal about it, start a sticker chart, or give them a special treat. If we praise our children for the good things they doo-doo (see what I did there?), we give them the confidence and will to do them again.
Above all, rest assured that even though nobody talks about it, you aren’t alone. There is nothing “wrong” with your child, and there is nothing wrong with you as a parent.
Specifically when it comes to toddlers, they are at an age where they are learning about cause and effect. If we were to think of their smeared feces like it were slime or play dough instead, we can understand why they might want to do these things. They don’t understand that poop is gross, they just know that the effect their poop can have when it’s balled up, smeared, and painted all over themselves is mesmerizing.
Trust your gut. If you think something is medically off and that is the cause, do not hesitate to call your child’s health provider. There is no need to be embarrassed. They really have heard it all.
And always remember, shit happens.