How to Stop Gross Toddler Behaviors

Young boy holding an insect in his hand

Vast Photography / First Light / Getty Images

Children do all sorts of weird things: Gagging themselves so they vomit. Playing with their own poop. Eating bugs. Sticking their fingers inside their rectums during bath time. While these may sound like gross or disturbing behaviors, they also sound like typical (and normal) things that toddlers might do.

As an adult, you understand that these behaviors are inappropriate and unhealthy, but a toddler can't yet make that connection. Toddlers don't have any past knowledge about these experiences and can't yet predict the consequences.

How to Respond to Gross Behaviors

Still, just because such behaviors are normal or expected doesn't mean that you shouldn't help your child stop. These "experiments" are often a health hazard, which makes it even more important for them to stop.

The first time your toddler does something gross, you can simply ignore it. It might never happen again. Stay calm and watch closely for any signs that it's about to happen. If it does, try to distract your child, like by giving them a bath toy to hold or singing a song together (maybe one with hand motions to keep little fingers busy).

If the behavior continues, stay calm, wash hands, and simply say "no, don't do that anymore."

A calm reaction also works for a toddler who has put their hands in their dirty diaper and smeared poop all over. Stay calm and matter-of-fact while you are cleaning up. Then try to limit your toddler's access to their diaper in the future. Dress them in clothing that they can't easily get out of, like overalls or a one-piece outfit worn backwards (so the snaps or zipper go up the back instead of the front).

Avoid Reinforcing Undesirable Behaviors

There are many gross toddler behaviors 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 the behavior.

If you overreact to behavior you don't like, you may actually reinforce the behavior—so kids do it more and more.

For example, if toddlers gag themselves to the point of making themselves vomit, you might:

  • Be overly aggressive in telling them to stop it
  • Get very upset, overly excited, or mad
  • Keep pulling their fingers out of their mouth

Any or all of these could turn what is likely to be a normal, temporary developmental phase into a long-term problem. Instead of making a big deal out of the vomiting, stay calm, clean up, and pretend that nothing happened.

It may also help to distract toddlers and keep their hands busy if it seems like they are getting ready to make themselves vomit. Keep them on a routine for meals, naps, and bedtime to make sure that stress isn't contributing to this behavior. See your pediatrician if the behavior continues, especially if your child isn't eating well, is having trouble starting solid foods, is not gaining weight well, or is often fussy.

A Word From Verywell

Even though it may disgust you to witness some of these behaviors in your sweet little child, remember they are normal and often a result of innocent curiosity. Many gross or annoying toddler behaviors and habits go away if you keep your response calm and matter-of-fact. Ignore, distract, and be patient, and these icky incidents will fade away.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.