Stopping Gross Toddler Behaviors

Question of the Week

A toddler playing with lipstick.
What would you do if you found your toddler like this?. Photo by Stephanie Rausser/Getty Images

Question. My son is 23 months old and just recently he displayed a behavior that disturbed me. During bath time he stuck his finger in his rectum. Is that a normal behavior for his age? Tina, Hollywood, Florida

Answer. While it may sound like a gross or disturbing behavior, it does also sound like a typical and normal thing that a toddler might do.

Is That Normal?

Of course you understand that it is an inappropriate and unhealthy thing to do, but your toddler can't yet make that connection.

He doesn't have any past knowledge about this experience and can't yet predict the consequences of doing something like this. So he was likely just exploring a new part of his body that he just noticed, just like if he put his finger in his mouth, nose, or ear.

Similar 'gross' behaviors include toddlers who play with their poop or put bugs in their mouth.

As with other things, just because it is normal or expected doesn't mean that you shouldn't help your child learn not to do it anymore. And since it is a health hazard, that makes it even more important for him to stop doing it.

Stopping Gross Toddler Behaviors

The most important thing to understand in trying to get a child to stop doing something like this is that if you overreact, you may actually reinforce the behavior and he may do it more and more.

If it was the first time that he did it, you could simply ignore it and he might never do it again.

Just stay calm and then watch closely for any signs that he is going to do it again. If he does, try to distract him away from the behavior, like by giving him a bath toy to hold or playing a game.

If he continues to do it, again stay calm, wash his hands, and simply tell him 'no, don't do that anymore' or 'it's yucky to put your finger in there.'

This also works for toddler who put their hands in their dirty diapers and smear the poop all over.

In this situation, in addition to staying calm and cleaning up matter-of-factly, without getting overexcited, you can try to limit your toddler's access to his diaper. Having him wear clothing that he can't easily get out of or reversing a one-piece outfit often works to limit access to a dirty diaper.

Reinforcing Toddler Behaviors

There are many other toddler behaviors like this that we run the risk of reinforcing if we aren't careful.

From toddlers who gag themselves to toddlers who bite, if you get upset and overly excited, your reaction might actually encourage your child to continue to do it.

How would you reinforce it?

For example, if your infant or toddler was gagging herself to the point of making herself vomit, you could:

  • get very upset, overly excited, or mad
  • be overly aggressive in telling her to stop doing it
  • keep pulling her fingers out of her mouth

Doing any or all of these things could turn what is likely to be a normal developmental phase that could quickly pass into a long term problem.

Instead of making a big deal out of her vomiting, it would be better to stay calm and clean her up matter of factly and pretend that nothing happened.

It may also help to distract her and keep her hands busy if it seems like she is getting ready to make herself vomit, and keep her on a routine for meals, naps, and a bedtime, to make sure that stress isn't contributing to this behavior.

See your pediatrician if she keeps doing it, if she wasn't eating well, is having trouble starting solid foods, is not gaining weight well, or if she was often fussy, etc.

Many gross or annoying infant and toddler behaviors and habits go away if you let them.

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