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The Truth About Poop

Baby poop is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter what social circles you run in, or how many academic degrees follow your name: The urge to splurge (often graphic) details about your child's diaper contents can be irresistible, especially when you're around other moms.

Maybe it's because we've been humbled by pregnancy, childbirth, and/or adoption procedures, but by the time we're up to our elbows in the brown stuff, we've developed skewed perspectives about what makes for good conversation. Case in point: I recently met up with a well-read and intellectual friend at a local caf[E233], where we discussed our 2-year-old sons' constipation problems in such loud, loving detail that the people next to us found another table to enjoy their morning brew. Oops.

Here's more fuel for those mom-only chats, from what's come over us to how to deal with the dirtiest diapers.

How Poop Got to Be so Fascinating

It's hard not to at least notice and compare the contents of our baby's diapers from one day to the next -- considering how many of them we change. How interested can you get? Bethany Gwin of Vestavia Hills, Alabama, says she became "poop-obsessed" when daughter Reese, 4, was a baby, and she thinks she knows why. "Reese was dependent on me for how much she ate, how often she ate, how often she was held. Poop was just an extension of that. If a book said she should go every day or every few days and she didn't, as her mother, it was my job to fix it."

Another reason: You love everything about your child, from the first smile she bestows upon you to the stinky loads she drops in her diaper. Plus, as one mom I know says, "It's visible proof our children are actually doing something!"

Cleanup Duty

Juliet Pennington Matte of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, was totally unprepared for the sight (and the smell) of her twin daughters' nursery one afternoon when she went in to wake them from their naps. They were already up: Amanda and Nicole, then 2, had "decorated" their white cribs, bedding, a rocking chair, even their stuffed animals and each other, with the contents of their diapers. "I freaked out," Matte says. "Even before I went into their room to get them, I called my husband at work, telling him  -- okay, screaming at him  -- that he'd better get home quickly." If your budding Jackson Pollock discovers his poop makes an excellent artistic medium, or his diaper just doesn't hold as much as you expected:

Take a deep breath (through your mouth!) and snap on a pair of disposable medical gloves. You can get them at a medical-supply store (stock up ahead of time), and they'll help you avoid cross-contamination.

Clean up your little decorator first, and any other children or pets who were included in his artistic vision, to eliminate tracking to other areas.

Scrape off washables, like clothes, bedding, and plastic toys, and clean them with hot, soapy water. Fabrics should be pretreated with a product specially formulated to fight baby stains, then washed. Let the stain remover soak for half an hour. Repeat the procedure if the poop stain is still visible; the heat from the dryer will set the stains permanently. For white clothing, bleach can be added to the wash cycle for an extra stain-busting boost.

Wash surfaces thoroughly with a solution of 25 percent bleach and 75 percent hot water.

Call in the pros to clean upholstery and carpets, especially if your child is sick. Their equipment can extract and disinfect. Don't worry what they'll think when they see your house. They're used to these visits.

Kinds of Poop and What to Do with It

Poop: Black/green, mild smell, slimy. May look like a smear in diaper
Child's age: First 48 hours after birth
What's going on? Meconium
How to handle: Do nothing. The elimination of this substance that's present in your baby's intestines before birth is completely normal.

Poop: Tan to yellow, mild smell, mushy
Child's age: Newborn to toddler
What's going on? Breastfeeding
How to handle: Don't worry. Breastfed babies tend to produce fewer stinkers than their formula-fed chums.

Poop: Medium to dark brown, strong ironlike smell, solid
Child's age: Newborn to toddler
What's going on? Formula feeding
How to handle: Poop from formula-fed babies tends to have a distinctive scent. Again, nothing for you to do but clean it up.

Poop: Dark brown, firm, smell varies from mild to phew!
Child's age: Baby (6-month-old) to toddler
What's going on? Solid foods
How to handle: Prepare your nose for a workout as new foods are introduced. Eggs, dairy, and meat tend to produce foul-smelling poops.

Poop: Brown, dry, shaped like little rabbit pellets, or quite large and knobby
Child's age: Baby (6-month-old) to preschooler
What's going on? Constipation
How to handle: Urge your child to drink water; increase fiber; introduce apple and prune juices. Bananas and cheese may constipate.

Poop: A color other than yellow or brown, or streaked with red
Child's age: Newborn to preschooler
What's going on? Diet or possible anal bleeding
How to handle: Certain foods and food coloring can stain BMs. But at any age, blood can mean an anal fissure or hemorrhoids: Call the doctor.

Poop: Solid black with what looks like coffee grounds; may or may not smell
Child's age: Newborn to preschooler
What's going on? Internal bleeding
How to handle: Call your pediatrician right away. This poop can signal bleeding in the GI tract, a serious condition.

Poop: Loose, watery, often explosive, mild to strong smell
Child's age: Newborn to preschooler
What's going on? Diarrhea
How to handle: Call your pediatrician immediately.

The Bottom Line
"It doesn't matter if your child goes five times a day or once a week. If she's growing, that's what counts," says Alessio Fasano, M.D., head of the pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Young children's bowel movements can change dramatically from day to day, week to week. "What's brown today may be yellow tomorrow," he says. All of which will give you more to ponder than you ever dreamed you'd care to.

Diana Burrell, a mom of one, also writes for Family Circle and Saveur.

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