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Diapering Duty

father changing baby's diaper

Chris Callis

Is diapering all that hard? Thankfully, no. But for a new parent, it can be a little intimidating. That's where this guide comes in. Our expert advice will take all the guesswork out of this sometimes stinky process. With a little practice, you'll soon be a pro.

Get in Gear

While it's great to have a changing table, any flat surface -- including the top of a low dresser, the floor, or your bed -- will work. No matter where you place your baby, a changing pad (with a washable cover) is a handy tool, since the pad's center indentation will cushion your baby while the straps that fasten across her stomach keep her in place. "Most important, keep your supplies within easy reach -- you should always have one hand on your baby while you change her," says Jennifer Labit, a St. Louis -- based childbirth educator. Be sure to stock up on the basics listed on the next page.

Disposable or Cloth?

Both types of diapers have their advantages. Most moms consider disposables more convenient, but opting for cloth can save you money. According to Diaper Changes: The Complete Diapering Book and Resource Guide, by Theresa Rodriguez Farrisi, it costs from $3.50 to $9.60 a week to launder cloth diapers yourself or $12 to $15 to use a diaper service, compared with $17 for a week's worth of disposables. Over the course of three years, this can add up to a difference of more than a thousand dollars.

While cloth is softer, it can lead to more frequent diaper rash. "Disposables have better absorbency, which keeps your baby's skin drier and less prone to irritation," explains Marla Mikelait, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Temple University Medical School, in Philadelphia, who used cloth diapers on her children. Finally, there's a strong argument that diapering with cloth is gentler on the environment. In fact, one of the only studies on the topic -- dating from 1990 -- found that more than 18 billion disposables are tossed into the trash each year.

Now that you're geared up for diaper duty, be prepared to get grossed out: Newborn stool isn't pretty. "I thought something was horribly wrong with Cole the first time I changed him at the hospital," says Jennifer Johnston, of Sun City, California. "His diaper was covered with this substance that looked like tar!" Luckily, a nurse reassured her that all that sticky stuff -- known as meconium -- is perfectly normal during a baby's first 48 hours.

After three to five days, your baby's stools will change. If you're breastfeeding, they'll be seedy, mushy, and yellowish; if you're using formula, they'll be firmer and yellow-brown or green. The number of bowel movements your baby has will also vary. It's normal for a breastfed baby to poop at least four times a day -- and sometimes up to a dozen times. Infants on formula may go only three times a day. But don't worry if your baby doesn't follow these patterns exactly. "Parents always think that their baby is pooping too much -- or not enough," Dr. Mikelait says. "Sometimes, an infant will go an entire day without a bowel movement, and that's perfectly normal." Still, if your baby is under 4 months old, let your pediatrician know if he hasn't pooped in the past 48 hours.

Bottoms Up!

You should change your baby approximately every three hours -- or after each feeding -- and any time her diaper is dirty or wet. These directions will get you started.

  • Wash your hands, and fill a small bowl with warm water. Lay your baby faceup on the changing pad, and strap her in.
  • Unfasten the dirty diaper. Holding your baby's ankles in one hand, gently lift her bottom and pull the diaper away. (If she's had a bowel movement, you may want to fold the dirty diaper over and rest her against its outer cover to keep the changing pad clean.) Watch out if you have a boy -- he may pee as soon as you take his diaper off!
  • Using wet cotton balls or a washcloth, clean her genitals and bottom, wiping front to back. (Baby wipes are too harsh on a newborn's skin, but you can use them after the first month.) If your son is uncircumcised, wipe his penis without retracting the foreskin. If he's circumcised, remove the gauze dressing, clean the area with a wet cotton ball, apply petroleum-based ointment, and cover.
  • Slide the clean diaper under your baby. Using an alcohol swab, clean under and around the umbilical-cord stump. (It'll fall off within two weeks.)
  • If she has diaper rash, lift her by the ankles and spread zinc oxide cream or petroleum-based ointment in and around her bottom. To help the rash go away faster, change her diapers more often and avoid using baby wipes, which can irritate her already-sore skin. Instead, use a wet washcloth, and let her bottom air-dry. (If the rash doesn't clear up in two or three days, or if it's dark red or raised, see your doctor.) Now pull the diaper between her legs -- if you have a boy, position his penis downward -- then fasten the tabs at a slightly downward angle. Most newborn diapers have a cutout for the umbilical cord, but if you're using a bigger size you may need to fold the waistband down.

05-01-2004