This week's question for Dr. B (our resident early childhood development specialist) is about a toddler who insists on taking off her clothes and her diaper. It comes from a pregnant mom who is (understandably) in no mood for potty training. Unfortunately, she's got a 21 month-old with Houdini-like skills.
Dear Dr. B,
My 21 month-old daughter refuses to keep her clothes and diaper on. Four-five times last week, she took off her pants, ripped off her diaper, sat in her potty and pooped. I know I should be grateful for this development, however, she is not telling me when she has to go and lacks the language skills to do so. And she only does this to poop, not to pee. Plus my plan was to put off potty training until after I gave birth to my second child in December.
To complicate matters, she is also taking her clothes and diapers off during the night. She has mastered backwards diapers, velcro, zippers and one piece pajamas, even when worn backwards. Giving her a bath and washing all of her bedding every single morning is getting tiresome.
Also, I think her new disrobing habit has as much to do with wanting to explore her genitals as it does having to go to the bathroom. But I am trying my best to simply ignore that behavior until the phase ends.
Many children go through a stage where they take off their clothing and their diapers. If this stage didn’t involve dirty diapers, this would be a milestone of which most parents would be proud. For some children, this could be a sign of readiness for potty training since the child's behavior suggests that they are beginning to be uncomfortable when wet or soiled. You can refer to my post "Potty Training: When to Start" to learn the 10 signs of potty training readiness. If you decide that it's time, you can begin formal training with "Potty Training 101".
However, if you are not ready to tackle potty training yet, preventing the behavior by getting clothing that is difficult to remove is always a good place to start and often works. But when this strategy is ineffective (as in your case), you need to determine and address the reason for the disrobing.
Reason #1: DISCOMFORT
Try using a larger diaper or one that is more absorbent (see diaper-changing post). Consider adding an extra insert in her diaper or changing her an additional time during the night or early in the morning to minimize discomfort associated with a soaked and soiled diaper. Also consider changing the temperature of the room or her nighttime clothing if you think she is disrobing because she is getting too warm.
Reason #2: BOREDOM
Create a more structured schedule of activities at home to keep her occupied and teach her how to play with toys independently. Multi-sensory toys with visual, auditory, and tactile elements are best because they engage all the senses and will keep her hands occupied. At nighttime, try putting an extra diaper on over her clothes so she can remove one for fun and hopefully leave the other one on.
Reason #3: EXPLORATION
It is normal for young children to explore their genitals and they may experience a positive sensation from doing so which rewards the behavior. Although you shouldn’t discourage this behavior, you can teach boundaries if your child begins to engage in this behavior outside of the home. Also, consider consulting with your doctor to rule-out any other possible causes for excessive touching such as diaper rash or an infection.
Reason #4: MASTERY OF SOMETHING NEW
If you think she is excited by her new discovery of how to take her clothes off, begin teaching her how to put her clothes back on. At the same time, explain that clothes stay on during the day and come off at night. Try giving her a doll with clothes that come on and off that she can practice with.
Reason #5: LACK OF COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Disrobing may also occur because she does not have the language to tell you she needs to be changed or needs to go to the potty. Use her disrobing behavior as an opportunity to teach a new skill. Start by giving her a simple word or phrase to use when she needs to go (e.g., "go potty") or she's wet (e.g., “wet” or “change please”).
Every time she attempts to disrobe, try to catch her in the act and prompt her to say the word or phrase with repetition. When she succeeds in using the word or phrase, reward her by changing her or bringing her to the potty immediately to reinforce her efforts. Give her lots of praise when she uses this word or language (even if she didn’t really have to go to the potty). Also, make sure to praise her for keeping her clothes on, especially at night.
Reason #6: TO GET A BIG REACTION
Many children continue to engage in behavior because it results in a BIG reaction from a parent (regardless if it is positive or negative). To discourage this, follow a predictable response sequence every time it happens.
1) Calmly and firmly state a simple phrase such as, “clothes stay on” when she attempts or succeeds at disrobing
2) If possible, have her put her clothes back on/partially on and help you clean up the mess (to teach her there is a natural consequence for her actions)
3) Remind her to use a predetermined word or phrase to request a change
4) Ask her to repeat it and praise her for repeating it
5) Take her clothes off immediately and change her (or give her a bath)
Finally, if you wish to pursue potty training, keep in mind that teaching her to keep her diaper and clothes on will also help her learn to control her bladder and bowel movements. When she is able to hold it long enough to tell you before she needs to go, she will be more successful at using the potty inside and outside of the home.
However, if she continues to have difficulty keeping her clothes on and learning to tell you before she has to go to the bathroom, consider starting a more formal approach involving putting her on the potty at predictable times so that there is less room for her to learn bad habits.
— Dr. B