Circumcisions are a common procedure for newborn boys in America. Learn more about the benefits, the possible complications, and how to care for a circumcised penis.

By Karin A. Bilich
Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

When boys are born, they have a piece of skin that covers the end of the penis, called the foreskin. Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin to expose the tip of the penis. Learn more about this common procedure, including the benefits, side effects, and how to care for a circumcised penis.

What is Circumcision? 

A newborn must be stable and healthy to be circumcised, and the procedure is usually performed in the first few days of life (assuming it will not happen during a religious ceremony). “Most male babies are circumcised after birth/delivery and prior to discharge from hospital,” explains Vanessa Elliott, M.D., a urologist at UCP Urology of Central PA, Inc.

To perform a circumcision, the doctor places the baby on a special table and cleans his penis and foreskin. A special clamp is attached to the penis, and the foreskin is removed to expose the head of the penis. Finally, ointment and gauze or a plastic ring are placed over the cut to protect it from rubbing against the diaper.

The circumcision procedure is done quickly. The baby may cry during it and for a short while afterward, although infants typically experience minimal distress, says Dr. Elliot. Local anesthesia can greatly reduce your baby's discomfort. If you decide to have your son circumcised, talk with your child's doctor about anesthesia options.

Baby Circumcision Rates

Globally, circumcision is not a popular choice. Firm statistics on worldwide circumcision rates don't exist, but in 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 30% of men are circumcised. It's most common in North Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 58.3 percent of boys were circumcised in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available. Hospital discharge data shows that circumcision rates vary significantly by region. In 2010, 71 percent of boys in the Midwest were circumcised; 66.3 percent in the Northeast; 58.4 percent in the South; but only 40.2 percent in the West.

"The regional differences may be due to varying rates among ethnic groups," says Mary Jones, an NCHS spokeswoman. "Low circumcision rates in the West may be caused, in part, by increased births among Hispanics. Studies have shown that Hispanics are less likely to opt for circumcision than other whites or blacks."

Overall, though, circumcision rates have been declining in the United States over the past few decades. Specifically, the CDC reports a 10 percent overall decline between 1979 and 2010. This might be partly attributed to task force reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The latest report in 2012 recognizes some medical benefits of circumcision, but it doesn't routinely recommend the procedure. Instead, it encourages parents to make the decision based on “religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs.” 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Newborn Circumcision

According to the AAP, research suggests that there may be some medical benefits to circumcision. Boys who have been circumcised are at reduced risk for:

Here are some of the reasons parents may decide against having their baby circumcised.

  • Surgical risks: As with any surgery, circumcision has some risks. Complications are rare and usually minor. The most common issues are bleeding and infection.
  • Penile damage: Very rarely, the foreskin may be cut too short or too long. Equally unlikely is improper healing from the circumcision. These complications may require another circumcision or—in extreme cases—penile reconstruction.
  • Alteration of penile sensitivity: Some people claim that circumcision may lessen the sensitivity of the tip of the penis, decreasing sexual pleasure later in life. However, this hasn't been proven to be true.
  • Fear of pain: Some parents choose not to circumcise their sons because they are worried about the pain the baby may feel.
  • Protection of the tip of the penis: When the foreskin is removed, the tip of the penis may become irritated, causing the urinary opening to become too small. This could lead to urination problems that may need to be surgically corrected.

Should My Baby Get Circumcised?

Circumcision is an elective procedure that’s usually not required by medical need, law, or hospital policy. Talk with your partner about the best course of action for your child. Some parents may want the procedure for religious, social, or cultural reasons. For example, followers of the Jewish and Islamic faiths have circumcised their male newborns for centuries, but it’s much less common in Northern Europe and other parts of the world. Ask yourself if it matters whether your son looks like other men in the family or his peers.

Whether or not to circumcise your newborn is an important decision. Circumcision could be riskier if done later in a boy's life, so if you have any questions or concerns, talk with your doctor about them during your pregnancy. Then you'll have enough time to make an informed decision.

Newborn Circumcision Care

After the circumcision, the tip of the penis may seem raw or yellowish for seven to ten days. Keep the area as clean as possible by washing your baby's penis with soap and water every day. Change his diapers often so that urine and stool do not cause infection. Dr. Elliot says you can also apply Vaseline or Neosporin to the incision. “The specific physician performing the circumcision would instruct the parents on care to avoid adhesions,” she adds. 

If doctors have dressed the penis in gauze, apply a new bandage each time you change his diaper. Coat the gauze with petroleum jelly to keep it from sticking. Also note that some doctors apply a plastic ring instead of a bandage, which will drop off by itself within five to eight days.

Complications from circumcision occur in 1 in 200 to 1 in 500 circumcised newborn males, according to the AAP. The most frequent complications are minor bleeding and local infection, both of which can be easily treated by your child's doctor. Call your pediatrician right away if:

  • Your baby does not urinate normally within 6 to 8 hours after the circumcision.
  • There is persistent bleeding.
  • There is redness around the tip of the penis that gets worse after 3 to 5 days.
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Comments (3)

Anonymous
January 27, 2019
the boys in my family has done circumcise, its not about choices, in our custom once a boys reaches the age 12 they need to be circumcise, once our son is circumcise this is celebrated by family gathering with a feast....it is a sign becoming a adult, this has been respected through out our culture, it is very much the same in the European way when your son turns 18 or 21 that they are mature or is now an adult, that it is given a birthday gift or to allow your child....getting your son circumcise at the age of 3 is horse [filtered], my 7 brothers, my so many nephews, cousins all and each one of them got themselves circumcise without any problems, I say if you want to get your sons circumcise then do it....stop reading and watching a lot of [filtered].....it is your choice only, some people just don't understand how many religions or culture customs work, to some culture it is very shameful not getting your son circumcise, you bring shame to the family...at the end of the day it is your choice...not the doctors or someone telling you what you should do
Anonymous
January 14, 2019
My kid actually thank me for circumcising him. His peers mostly because of locker room comparing. All my brothers are circumcised. As well as nephews, cousins, so on. All of them agree. They love that fact that they're circumcised.
Anonymous
December 31, 2018
Please be advised; the statement “.. foreskin fully retracts, around age 3, ..” is incorrect. It does not happen normally until puberty. NEVER try to pull back the foreskin of a small (intact) boy as it can tear the foreskin and lead to an emergency where the blood flow to the head of the [filtered] is cut off. Too many doctors, as well as, parents are making this mistake. I beg you all to not circumcise your baby sons. At the very least please watch the documentary American Circumcision; which you can see on Netflix. Brendon Marotta did a tremendous job and I cannot applaud him enough for putting the spotlight on this awful practice that has left so many men in the US, Canada, and Australia without the ability to enjoy sexual pleasure to the same degree as me who was lucky enough to be left intact due to being born in Europe where this is not normally done. Many seem to think that the degree of sexual pleasure is not affected by circumcision probably because they are either women or circumcised themselves, but that is so wrong. I know this because as an intact man, I can simply pull my foreskin back to simulate what it is like for someone who is circumcised. I can tell you that if I leave my pubic gland exposed to rub against my clothing during my daily activities, I simply cannot function due to how sensitive my pubic gland is. The only way someone who is circumcised can deal with that is if the pubic gland is severely desensitized, and that of course makes perfect sense. This is how your body will deal with your pubic gland being exposed. There is a good reason for why all male mammals have foreskin and that is to protect the sensitive pubic gland from injury and keeping it moist and sensitive. If it was not needed; it would have been lost through evolution millions of years ago. In fact, the original prudish reason for circumcision was to prevent boys from masturbating by reducing pleasure from it. The arguments used these days by the American Medical field, who by the way, profits tremendously from the no 1 surgical procedure in the country, is preventions of various diseases, and they claim that the frequency of these are much higher in intact males. In fact, they misuse the statistics, something that is highlighted in the documentary. The incidents of these are rare in both intact and circumcised males. In any case they are crazy arguments. You would not amputate your breasts to avoid the possibility of breast cancer, or your toes to avoid the possibility of toe fungus etc, right? In fact, the severe effects of circumcision procedures gone wrong are much worse and happen relatively frequently. The number of circumcision procedures performed is dropping for a good reason. More and more physicians and parents in the US now understand how important it is to stop this practice. More and more countries are now banning it including Australia where it was performed extensively in the past. Many European countries are too, even though this has not been much of an issue there. Some countries are reluctant solely due to the fear of religious parents having this done anyway illegally by non-professionals. It is the same problem we have with some African parents and female circumcision. An important aspect of this too is that you as a parent do NOT have the right to have this done to your son. Only your son has the right to make this decision when he becomes an adult. We all have the fundamental human right of having our perfectly healthy body left intact unless we ourselves, as adults, decide otherwise. All physicians who perform this procedure are violating their own oath of doing no harm. It is also an extremely painful and traumatic event for the infant and we still don’t know for sure what psychological consequences it may have for him in the future. We know that the younger a person experiencing a traumatic event is the more severe imprint it makes on the brain. Perhaps it explains some phobias like being afraid of doctors, medical procedures, and even needles etc. My mom, for instance, almost drowned as a toddler and developed a lifelong phobia regarding being near or submerged in water. The same incident would not have the same effect on an adult. If you decide to circumcise your son, be prepared for the dreaded question he may ask when he is old enough to understand what was done to him: “Why did you do this to me?” There was in fact, a lawsuit discussed in the documentary where a teenager sued the hospital for doing this to him and he won a settlement. If you leave him intact, I can guarantee you that he will be thankful. It is my sincere hope that this practice will be banned eventually in the US as well. I am sure the hospitals won’t be happy about it though due to the loss of income. To religious Jews and Muslims, I can only say that your son has the same basic human right to decide this for himself as well. In fact, to do this for religious reasons makes no sense at all. If “God” created man with a foreskin, then it makes no sense that God would want you to remove it. Please make the right choice and don’t do this to your son. He WILL thank you in the future.