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How to Diaper a Baby

Changing a Girl

First, lift her legs with one hand and remove any poop with a wet washcloth. (Many new moms use baby wipes on their newborns with no problem. If your child's skin reacts to the chemicals in wipes, you can use a washcloth or cotton balls and plain water when cleaning baby's derriere during the first few weeks.) Using one area of the cloth at a time, clean inside all the creases, wiping downward. To clean the genital area, wipe from the vagina toward the rectum. Do not pull the labia back to clean inside. Dry the area with a soft cloth. Apply ointment around the genitals and on the buttocks to prevent diaper rash.

Changing a Boy

One big difference for boys: Don't leave the penis exposed -- keep it covered with a diaper or you may get sprayed. Clean under the testicles, gently pushing them out of the way. Wipe under the penis and over the testicles, toward the rectum. If he's uncircumcised, do not attempt to pull back the foreskin. Dry the area with a soft cloth. Apply ointment around the genitals and on the buttocks to prevent diaper rash.

If you had your baby circumcised, a light dressing of gauze and petroleum jelly was placed over the head of the penis. The penis will take about one week to heal. The tip will look red, and a yellow scab may appear, or you may notice a yellow secretion. For a few days, apply petroleum jelly over the tip of the penis every time you change your baby's diaper. Circumcision sites rarely become infected, but if the redness persists beyond a week, or you see swelling or crusted yellow sores that contain fluid, call your baby's doctor.

How to Buy Baby Diapers on a Budget
How to Buy Baby Diapers on a Budget

At each diaper change, use a cotton swab dipped in water or rubbing alcohol (talk to your pediatrician about his recommendation) to clean away the sticky crust and fluid that sometimes collects where the base of the umbilical stump meets the skin. Keep your baby's diaper folded below the cord (or buy a newborn diaper with a cutout to accommodate the cord) to keep it exposed to air. Limit bathing to sponge baths until the cord falls off, usually after about two weeks.

Nighttime Strategies

When your baby wakes up in the middle of the night, what should you do first -- feed her or change her? Most hungry newborns want to be fed immediately and won't take kindly to a quick diaper change first. But if you wait until your baby is satisfied, you'll wake her up when she would otherwise be on her way to dreamland. Compromise is the obvious solution: Change her halfway through the feeding (though breastfed babies may have another bowel movement afterward). If, miraculously, your baby doesn't wake up at night, she can sleep in a wet diaper as long as you change it first thing in the morning. The exception: If your baby has diaper rash, you need to change her whenever she's wet, even at night.

The Wiggly Baby

Starting at around six to nine months of age, your baby will not want to sit still for a moment -- especially not for a boring diaper change. To prevent changing sessions from turning into wrestling matches, distract your squirmy one with a favorite song or a toy he can touch and mouth (preferably brought out only for this purpose). Placing a mobile over the changing table may also keep him busy. At this age, though, many parents ditch the changing table in favor of the floor.

Diaper Rash

When baby's delicate skin becomes irritated by excessive moisture and diaper friction, the result is diaper rash. Changing your baby's diaper frequently and exposing his bottom to air whenever possible (lay him over a few cloth diapers) will help cure it and reduce your baby's risk of future rashes. Once your baby has a rash, generously apply whatever ointment your doctor recommends to protect the skin from irritants and friction.

A changing table isn't a necessity. You can buy a pad that adapts to a dresser top, or opt for the bed. One advantage of a changing table: It's a handy place to store all the stuff you'll use to keep your baby clean and comfortable.

  • Baby soap or bath liquid
  • Baby shampoo
  • Baby cornstarch
  • Diaper rash ointment
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Diaper wipes
  • Sterile cotton balls
  • Baby nail scissors or clippers
  • Baby brush and comb
  • Cotton swabs
  • Square cloth diapers, for burping and cleaning spit-up
  • Bulb syringe for cleaning nasal congestion

Reviewed 11/00 by Jane Forester, MD

Originally published July 2001.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.