Not sure how to handle diaper changes? Whether you have a little boy or a little girl, we've got expert-approved techniques and secrets for new parents.

By Kate Jackson Kelly
Updated June 08, 2020
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Babies and diapers. They go together like parenthood and sleepless nights. Though diapering is hardly the most challenging aspect of parenthood, there's a bit more to it than you may think. Check out our guide to any changing dilemma you may have, and learn how to properly diaper your little boy or little girl.

Step-by-Step Guide to Diapering

Newbie diaper changer? Follow these eight steps to get it done right.

Step 1: Place your baby on the changing table or other safe surface. If your table has straps, belt your baby in to keep him from rolling off. Otherwise, keep your eyes and hands on him at all times. Never leave him unattended.

Step 2: Unfold the fresh diaper, placing the closures toward your baby's head. Generally, the pictures go in front. (Not that putting them on backward makes much of a difference.)

Step 3: Remove the soiled diaper. If you can't reach the trash can, at least place the used diaper out of baby's reach. Cleanse the whole diaper area with baby wipes or water-soaked cotton balls; read the specific guidelines below for cleaning boys and girls.

Step 4: Place your baby on the fresh diaper, belly up. The top of the diaper in the back should be at belly button level.

Step 5: Is your baby fussing? Keep making eye contact and talking to let him know everything's okay.

Step 6: Apply a light sprinkling of cornstarch and/or cream, according to your baby's needs.

Step 7: Thread the front of the diaper through his legs and fasten it snugly, but not too tightly.

Step 8: Repeat the process again. And again. And again ...

Cleaning a Baby Girl When Diapering

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.

Cleaning a Baby Boy When Diapering

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.

What About the Umbilical Cord?

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.

Does My Baby Have Diaper Rash?

If the skin on your baby’s groin, upper legs, buttocks, or anus area looks red and irritated, it’s probably a diaper rash. This is usually the result of being in a wet or soiled diaper for too long; your baby's delicate skin can become irritated by excessive moisture and diaper friction. Diaper rash frequently responds well to cream that contains zinc oxide, but using too much can actually make the issue worse. Cream can also help prevent a rash as long as it’s applied to a completely dry bottom; otherwise it might keep the moisture in. If a rash doesn’t start to improve after a few days of treatment or looks worse over time, see your pediatrician. To help prevent or heal diaper rash, change your baby more often and let him go commando for five to ten minutes twice a day.

Tips for Diapering a Baby

Outsmart Leaks

If a diaper is too small and tight, there won’t be enough space for poop, which will find the path of least resistance—up the back or out the side. On the other hand, a diaper that’s too big can let its contents dribble out. Rushing through a change can also lead to leakage: You might put the adhesive tabs on wherever, which can create a gap in the front or the back. When closing a diaper, always make sure it’s snug and the tabs are even and coming across the midline (right below the belly button). Also check that the leg cuffs are pulled out instead of in. And remember, urine will flow in whichever direction the penis is pointed, so aim it downward.

Control Your Moving Target

Starting at around 6 to 9 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 her with a favorite song or a toy (preferably brought out only for this purpose). Placing a mobile over the changing table may also keep him busy. Gather your supplies so they’re within arm’s reach before you tackle the task. Keep one hand on your baby at all times to prevent falls. If she’s especially squirmy, you can change her on the floor.

Expect Busy Hands

When a baby reaches down and touches little girl parts (or boy parts), it’s just as normal as investigating her ears, nose, or toes. Of course, when your baby’s hands venture downward, they can come away with an unwanted gift: poop. It contains bacteria you don’t want her to get in her mouth, so clean up quickly.

Develop a Nighttime Strategy

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.

This article partly appeared in the July 2020 issue of Parents magazine.

Sources: Danelle Fisher, M.D., a pediatrician in Los Angeles; Michelle LaRowe, author of Nanny to the Rescue!; Bryan Vartabedian, M.D., author of Looking Out for Number Two.

Comments (1)

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December 3, 2018
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