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Cleaning Baby's Messiest Parts

Stack of Diapers with Baby Oil and Baby Powder

There's nothing more adorable than a baby, especially when he's yours. At the other end of the spectrum, your cooing, dimpled darling literally has no control over his bodily functions...and there's little that's adorable about the cleanup duty that inevitably follows.

Then, of course, there are all the jobs that seem so straightforward but veer into gross-out territory. Just ask Chicago mom Kristen Kupperman. "I was very squeamish, to say the least, the first time I had to take Owen's rectal temperature," remembers Kupperman. "My mouth dropped open, and I thought, I'm supposed to stick the thermometer where?"

If this is your feeling on such matters, don't worry. We've assembled a panel of pros, including moms, who have the scoop on cleaning up poop and dealing with other dirty little details.

Diaper Duty

How can such a tiny baby make such an enormous mess? Relax -- it's possible to clean it up quickly without renting a biohazard suit.

How to: First, take a peek into the back of baby's diaper to assess the situation. If things look grim, assemble your supplies first or you'll be scrubbing the walls as well as baby's tushy.

First, lay down a washable or disposable changing pad. "They're a lifesaver," swears Jennifer Stearns Buttrick, a mom in Key Biscayne, Florida. "When the poop gets on the pad, and it always does, I just take the end near his legs and fold it under his bottom. The surface is clean again."

Then, open up the clean diaper, get out several wipes, and lay baby on the pad. When removing the offending diaper, resist the temptation to frantically clean in all directions. "Always wipe from front to back," says Karen Dull, MD, an emergency physician at Children's Hospital Boston, "especially with girls, because if stool gets into the urethra, it can cause a urinary tract infection."

Another important tip: Get the diaper away from baby as soon as possible. He could grab it or step on it, which turns a quick change into a long bath. Wipe thoroughly and put baby in the clean diaper.

Clean-Penis Patrol

Size may not matter, but how you clean your baby's penis does. There are very different methods for cleaning a circumcised penis versus an uncircumcised one.

How to: If your baby boy is circumcised, submerging him in bathwater before the wound heals could subject him to infection, warns Dr. Dull, so clean with care. After he's circumcised, his penis will be wrapped in gauze -- wait for the gauze to fall off on its own before you clean him up.

Wipe the penis very gently with a soft, wet, soapy cloth, and don't forget to lift the scrotum and clean the base. Then, coat the wound with triple antibiotic ointment, which keeps it clean, helps it heal, and prevents it from sticking to the diaper. Use the ointment until the skin's tone is even with the rest of the penis.

Uncircumcised babies can take baths as soon as the umbilical cord falls off, but don't pull the foreskin down, advises Dr. Dull. The membrane attaching it to the penis will tear and bleed if it's tugged too hard. It takes four months to a year before you can clean inside, she says. "When you can gently and easily pull it back, it's time to clean inside." Until then, clean the outside of the penis with a soft cloth, soap, and water.

Girl Grooming

This is probably the easiest part about raising girls -- your baby's vagina is virtually self-cleaning. "Unless you're dealing with feces in the labia, it requires only a superficial cleaning, without a lot of pressure or rubbing," says Bruce Eisenberg, MD, a pediatrician and homeopath in private practice in Miami. "The vagina secretes out most of what doesn't belong inside."

How to: Cover your finger with a clean, wet washcloth and gently pat along the creases and folds. "You don't want a lot of soap in there because it will irritate," says Dr. Eisenberg. "And there's no need to spread the labia apart." After you wash, pat your child dry.

Stuffy Nose Detail

Somewhere in your drawers of baby paraphernalia, you have a little bottle of saline drops and a teardrop-shaped suction bulb. This odd couple is what you use to suction mucus out of your baby's nose when she's stuffed up.

How to: Cradle baby in your arms at a 45-degree angle and place your hand on her forehead to keep her head steady. "Never lay baby flat on her back when you're putting medicine into her mouth or nose," says Dr. Eisenberg. "It can cause her to choke."

Squirt three to 10 saline drops into each nostril. Don't stress over a stray spritz or two -- "the solution is similar in content to tears and doesn't sting the eyes," says Dr. Eisenberg.

Leave it in for a minute or two to loosen up the phlegm. If baby's nose still seems stuffy, break out the bulb. Squeeze air out of the aspirator, then insert the tip into the nostril. (Blowing air into the nose will force unnecessary pressure on the nasal passages.) Then loosen your grip on the bulb so it suctions out the mucus (have a disposable tissue on hand so you can clean up the mess), and tackle the other nostril.

To clean, follow Kupperman's lead: "I like to have a small bowl of warm, soapy water on hand so I can immediately soak the aspirator after each session."

Eyedrop Drama

At some point, you may have to give your squirming baby a dose of medicine for his eyes. Considering how hard it is to put drops into your own eyes, you may need a little guidance.

How to: Lay the baby flat on his back on a changing table and secure the safety band, or put him on the floor on a clean blanket or towel. (If you think your baby's active when you change his diaper, just wait until he sees a medicine bottle lunging toward his eye!)

If he won't keep his eye open, drop the prescribed amount on the inside edge of the eyelid, suggests Dr. Eisenberg. Don't worry about what dribbles out; the prescription will take spillage into account.

Conquering Cradle Cap

If the top of your baby's head is scaly and dry, don't worry. She just has cradle cap, a painless, harmless combination of dry skin and scalp oil. It's as easy to get rid of as it is unsightly.

How to: Pour a quarter-size dab of baby oil in your palm and slather it on baby's scalp. "Let it sit for about 10 hours to loosen the scales," says Dr. Eisenberg. Then, rub off the dead skin with a soft toothbrush. "This method works great and didn't bother my baby a bit," says Lisa McGonagle of Amherst, New Hampshire. You can also wash baby's hair with a dollop of dandruff shampoo; just be extra careful not to get it in his eyes as you rinse.

Sticking a thermometer under a baby's tongue in the hopes of getting an accurate temperature reading is akin to asking him to read War and Peace: It's not going to happen. "Rectal thermometers are the best way to take an infant's temperature," says Dr. Eisenberg. "The ear canal is too crooked the first year of life to get an accurate ear thermometer reading." Taking a child's temperature under his arm yields equally inaccurate results.

How to: Lay out a disposable or washable changing pad. It's not unusual for babies to poop after you take their temperature, and you don't need any additional cleanup detail on your roster. Place your baby facedown on the pad and remove his diaper. Clean the area -- a regular wipe is fine -- and put your hand on the small of his back to keep him steady.

Using a digital thermometer, coat the tip thoroughly in a water-based lubricant such as KY jelly. Spread his buttocks apart and insert the thermometer about a half-inch. "If the reading is too low -- below 97 degrees F -- take her temperature again," says Dr. Dull. "A low temperature could indicate a problem, but it's also possible you didn't insert the thermometer far enough."

Now that you know what to do for these tasks, commit them to memory because you'll be doing them for a while. The bright side? Practice makes perfect!

If your baby's clothes were disposable, you wouldn't have to panic when baby pooped on them. Unfortunately, for most of us, that's hardly the case, so it's important to properly disinfect poopy pants and shirts. "Feces is a major source of bacteria and germs in humans," says Philip M. Tierno, PhD, author of The Secret Life of Germs (Atria) and director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center.

Your first step is to separate these clothes from the rest of your laundry. "You can infect a whole household with bacteria if you wash feces-covered clothes with other clothes," says Tierno. Saturate the item with plain tap water in a work or bathroom sink, and clean off the poop as best you can. Then fill the washing machine with hot water, add bleach according to package directions, and toss in the dirty clothes or bedding.

Brett Graff, a mother of two girls, is a writer based in Miami.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2004.