Sanitary disposal of feces is vital to combat childhood diarrhea, and its promotion is key to improving health in developing countries. Knowledge of prevailing feces disposal practices is a prerequisite to formulation of effective intervention strategies. Two studies were conducted in a shantytown area of Lima, Peru. First, information was gathered through in-depth interviews with mothers and structured observations (4 hours) of young children and their caretakers. Data on beliefs and practices related to feces disposal behaviors were obtained. Excreta were deposited by animals or humans in or near the house in 82% of households observed. Beliefs about feces depended on their source and were reflected in how likely the feces were to be cleared. While 22% of children aged > or = 18 months were observed to use a potty for defecation, 48% defecated on the ground where the stools often remained. Although almost all children were cleaned after defecation, 30% retained some fecal matter on their body or clothes. Handwashing after the child's defecation was extremely rare for both children (5%) and caretakers (20%). The hygienic disposal of feces poses problems in this type of community. Nevertheless existing practices were found that show promise for promotion on a wider scale, including greater use of potties.