Clinical psychologist David Coleman answers your parenting questions.
Question: I have a two-year-old boy and a new four-month-old baby. My toddler goes up for a nap in the afternoon.
Sometimes he doesn't sleep, sometimes he does but he is always happy to have a rest in his cot for an hour. My problem is that a few times this week he has done a poo in his nappy and is smearing it all over the cot and himself. The first couple of times I lifted him out and into shower. I told him that poo is for his nappy or the potty but we don't poke it cause it's smelly and dirty. I didn't give out to him. However he has kept doing it. He has very good verbal skills and can communicate with us very well. I'm worried he is starting a new habit and I want to be sure I'm dealing with it right. Any advice greatly appreciated!
David Coleman replies: Playing with poo is a normal enough thing for a two-year-old to do. There is nothing psychologically wrong, or disturbed, about it.
They have a curiosity and fascination with poo that isn't yet inhibited by a sense of it as 'dirty' or 'nasty'. They don't have the typical disgust reaction to faeces that older children and adults do.
So, some children do discover that they can get at their poo and then they play with it. Their play is just the same as if they were squeezing and smearing clay, or play doh, or paint or food.
There are a number of things you can try to do, some of which you have done already. But essentially there are three steps: prevent him getting access to the poo; stay calm and matter-of-fact in response to any smearing, and give him lots of other opportunities for messy play.
There are various options for reducing his access to the contents of his nappy. Some parents will put the nappy on backwards so the fastenings aren't easy to get at.
Others add a loop of duct tape or masking tape around the fastenings, but this can make getting the nappy off more difficult for you too. Toddlers can still get their fingers in around the leg openings if they are really determined!
So, you may want to consider getting a onesie for him for his afternoon nap. Again, put it on him backwards making the fastenings hard to reach.
If these efforts to deny him access to his poo don't work then your response to any smearing becomes more important. I think your responses to him so far have been ideal. You sound like you have stayed calm, but firm and clear.
Do remember that this isn't misbehaviour; it is just exploration and curiosity. So, despite the mess that is created, you need to respond to him like you would if he 'played' at squeezing a shampoo bottle all over the floor, for example.
Your tone of voice needs to be firm in reprimanding him, so he gets the message that you aren't happy with the behaviour. But then, as you are doing, you need to tell him the appropriate thing to do with poo.
I think using the shower to clean him off sounds like a good plan. Not only is it an efficient way of cleaning, but the thoughts of a shower may deter him from getting messy, if he makes the association between smearing poo and needing a shower.
In any event, the cleaning up process needs to be straightforward and business-like rather than a form of punishment. Punishment, of any sort, is not necessary as a response.
Finally, then, you might want to increase the opportunities your son has to play with messy things. This might satiate his desire to get dirty and squishy.
Good options for this are modelling clay, washable paints, wet sand in a sand tray, and good old-fashioned muck (again containable in a tray outdoors if you need to).
As he plays with the messy materials, comment to him about how good it feels it squidge and smear the clay, for example. Then remind him that it is nice to play with clay.
Then, if you find him still playing with his poo you can say, with authority, "no playing with poo. We play with clay instead".
You are right to try to stop his poo play before it becomes a more established habit, as the longer he plays with his poo the more ingrained the behaviour may become.