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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