The first time it happened, I’ll admit I laughed. The tiny rumble, the flurry of bubbles and, best of all, the sheepish grin as my six-month-old let out a burst of gas during her nightly bath. But when that was quickly followed by an unmistakable brown blob floating to the surface of the water, it stopped being funny. I especially wasn’t impressed when it happened for a second, third (and fourth) night in a row.
But, pooing in the tub isn’t your baby’s ultimate “f*ck you, mom”-move. Seriously. It’s normal for babies to let one loose after settling down into that warm, stool-softening bath water. Niraj Mistry, a staff paediatrician at SickKids, explains that a warm bath is often recommended as a treatment for constipation in babies. “Just how adults find a warm bath relaxing, babies also find it relaxing,” says Mistry.
Mistry explains that there are a few things happening during these bath mishaps. First, warm water causes your little one’s muscles to relax—all of their muscles—which means even the intestinal muscles are taking a break. Next, babies are still trying to figure out how to control their bowel movements and bodily functions. Remember when junior peed on you out of the blue when you were in the middle of changing his diaper? He probably didn’t even realize it was happening. Lastly, these muddied waters are often the result of poor timing. “The gastrocolic reflex [the] is quite strong in babies,” explains Mistry. “[This] causes the colon (large intestine) to contract and empty when food enters the stomach. So, bathing shortly after feeding could be leading to this situation.”
Aside from the ick factor (what, nobody warned you that parenthood requires dealing with this much poop?), you’re probably worried about germs. Mistry says not to worry too much. “While poo is not sterile (it is filled with nasty bacteria), it is very rare the poop in the bath water will cause any harm to the baby.” He explains that skin acts as the immune system’s first line of defense and prevents harmful bacteria from reaching the baby. Further, even if your little one gulps a mouthful of contaminated water, the chances of it containing enough bacteria to harm them is very low—and any swallowed bacteria would likely be killed off by stomach acids.
So, how do you prevent another crappy (ha!) evening?
That evening bath is a great way to help your baby wind down before bed. But if you’re noticing that this nightly deposit tends to fall right around the same time, it may be worth pushing her bath back (ideally, after the movement in question) or forward 30 minutes in hopes of sparing yourself the tub-scrub. While this may be a challenge for parents already trying to juggle the whirlwind dinner-to-bedtime routine, this may just be a temporary adjustment until baby develops better bowel control.
We’re going to guess that your little one isn’t super stealth about operation pool foul. Pay close attention to the warning signs: a firm tummy pre-bath, any indications of pushing or bearing down, or bubbles (though it might be too late if you see these). Once that warning shot is fired, it’s time to rinse off any soap and get them out of the water—stat!
“Don’t freak out,” urges Mistry. Babies are attuned to facial expressions and tone of voice and will be able to recognize if you are upset, angry or worried. Making a big fuss could lead to them fearing bath time, which you don’t want, so it’s important to stay calm, smile and offer a reassuring, “It’s OK,” before summoning the cleaning crew (um, yeah, that crew is most likely to be…you).
For those times when you’re just not quick enough—and sorry, but this will likely happen a few more times—pick up a small fishing net from your local dollar or pet store or keep a cup and some paper towels tub-side so you can quickly snatch up any floaters when doody calls. One of those green plastic berry baskets saved from the recycling bin, or a dollar-store colander or strainer, will work well, too.
Once you’ve removed your baby (and any offending turds) from the tub, you’ll want to drain the water and get to work scrubbing. White vinegar is a great natural antiseptic, but we won’t judge if you reach for the bleach—just make sure to thoroughly rinse the tub again before drawing another bath. If any toys were floating in the water, they’ll also need to be cleaned. We recommend removing toys from the tub and making sure to get rid of any excess water which might contain fecal matter. Once toys are completely dry, give them a wash with baby-safe disinfectant or boil them in water in the same way you would sterilize a pacifier before returning them to the bath.
If things got real messy, you may want to consider giving junior a second dip. Since you probably haven’t had a chance to wipe down the bath, a quick rinse in the sink (if they’re small enough) or with the shower attachment will suffice. Or if it’s late, consider a sponge bath or pat down with baby wipes. Just make it snappy, in case another number two is at the ready.
This article was originally published online in January 2019.