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Everything You Need to Know About Diapers

I flunked diapering my first time out. At a parenting class I took during my first pregnancy, I was practicing on a baby doll when one of the disposable diaper's tabs refused to open. Next thing I knew, the doll was flying off the table and thudding onto the floor. So who could blame me, a few weeks later, for letting my husband, the nurses at the hospital, and my visiting mother all do the honors on my newborn son before I mustered the courage to change him myself?

But practice makes progress. Four kids and ten continuous years of diapering later, I can deftly finish the job -- whether the child is sleeping, rolling, crawling, standing, or running away. I've changed diapers in the dark, on a plane, in a car, and on a train (and once while reading Dr. Seuss aloud). If there were a frequent-changer club, I'd be lounging on a tropical beach right now courtesy of my accumulated diaper points. Here's what I've learned for quick-change success:

First, the Good News

  • Despite its stinky reputation, the job of changing a baby's dirty diaper does have its upside.
  • It's a great time to get to know your infant. For a few uninterrupted minutes, it's just the two of you. I admit, the actual changing can be tedious, but I relish the delicious nuzzling after my child's clean and fragrant again.
  • It's fun for your baby. Consider it playtime. Talk about what you're doing. Tickle some piggies. Blow a raspberry on her belly. You can have fun too.
  • It's a wonderful way to monitor how much she's grown. You start with the tissue-size newborn diapers, and in no time you're wondering whether your toddler will be potty trained before she makes it to the newest King Henry VIII size.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of The Parenting Guide to Your Toddler.

Setting Up

Diapering can be as simple or elaborate as you want to make it. (Guess which route I took.) Some tips:

Your diaper choice
I know that cloth is enjoying a renaissance, but I welcome the disposable diaper as one of modernity's Great Gifts to Mothers, along with the umbrella stroller, the VCR, and the juice box. They're convenient, fast, mess-free, easy (once you get the hang of those tabs), fast.

Of course, like most of the big questions about parenting, which kind of diaper to use boils down to personal choice. (Neither method holds a big price or health advantage over the other. And your baby couldn't care less.)

Your changing table
My friend Deb didn't like the idea of purchasing a special piece of furniture just for bottom-cleaning. Then she brought her firstborn home from the hospital. Within 48 hours, she'd sent her husband out to buy a changing table in order to save her back and keep her bed clean.

Whether you buy a multipurpose dresser with a changing area on top or an inexpensive table made for the purpose, being able to change your baby without stooping makes the job more comfortable, especially when he's tiny. Another advantage to a changing table is that it provides a central place for storing diapers and wipes.

On the other hand, more than half the diaper changes I've done have taken place on a low ottoman in the family room that's been covered with a ratty old quilt. My kids have no idea how an ottoman is normally used. (Which brings me to another tip: Set up a diaper-changing station on each floor of your house. No sense in making a chore harder by climbing stairs too.)

Many changing tables come with a safety belt, though they can't keep a wriggling baby in place and they provide a false sense of security. Better keep one hand on your baby at all times (even atop a low ottoman). As for jazzy accoutrement like mobiles, fabric diaper stackers that coordinate with the nursery linens, and wipe warmers, let's just say they're optional.

Your diaper pail
I like my old-fashioned plastic pail, but my sister swears by the clinical efficiency of the Diaper Genie, which turns dirty diapers into hermetically sealed sausages. My favorite hint about diaper disposal came from my son's first daycare provider, who expertly rolled up a dirty diaper and sealed it with its own tabs. Much less messy than just tossing it.

Time to Change

There's really no right or wrong way to change a diaper, but there are a few things to keep in mind:

Newborns
Until your baby's umbilical-cord stump drops off, use the kind that has a notch for the belly-button area so you don't have to awkwardly fold down the top to keep the area dry for healing.

Boys
To avoid being sprayed, don't leave a boy exposed for too long while you're transitioning from a dirty diaper to a clean one. Draping a cloth diaper over his penis will offer protection.

Girls
Wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria from her bottom to her vagina. Don't clean the white gunk from her labia; it's a normal protective discharge that's supposed to be there.

Stoolgazing: What You'll Learn

It may sound, well, anal, but you can tell a lot about a baby by examining her output:

What she's eating.
For the first few days, newborn stool is a blackish-green, gummy substance called meconium, made up of amniotic-fluid refuse. After that, what comes out pretty much reflects what goes in. A breastfed baby's stool is a mustardy yellow and runny; it has little odor. A formula-fed baby's stool is deeper-hued and strong-smelling. When your baby begins pureed foods, don't be surprised to see a rainbow of poops that reflect her last lunch. They may even turn blackish if she's on an iron supplement. And when she graduates from baby food to solids, the rapid transit time through her gut means that sometimes whole bits of undigested carrots or corn show up -- again, surprising to see, but not a problem.

Whether she's adequately hydrated.
Breastfeeding moms often worry about whether their baby is getting enough milk, since they can't visually monitor intake. Rest assured that if your infant is wetting more than six to eight diapers a day and the urine isn't dark in color and strong-smelling, she's probably consuming plenty. If you're concerned about dehydration, you can tell when a super-absorbent diaper is wet by looking for a characteristic doughy lumpiness.

If there's a problem.
Blood or mucus in your baby's stool, or a foul odor, warrants a visit to your pediatrician. Watery BMs may indicate diarrhea. All babies, breast- and bottle-fed, have stool that's loose and unformed in the first months. With diarrhea, stools are liquidy and frequent and may exit explosively.

The Other Problem

I once frantically called my pediatrician long-distance while on vacation because my son had gone six poop-free days. Instead of obsessing, I should have been enjoying the break! (He went the next day.) "A baby can have a bowel movement after every feeding or not for a week or more," says Catharine Shaner, M.D., a pediatrician with the American Safety & Health Institute, in New Port Richey, FL. Sometimes there are transitions during which the baby just doesn't need to go much. And some kids just make fewer BMs than others.

Diet has an impact too. A baby under 6 weeks old who's on formula might poop once a day, but a breastfed infant the same age may go three times or more, even after every feeding.

So how do you know when to be concerned? Tell your doctor if your infant hasn't pooped for a week; don't resort to laxatives, suppositories, or enemas without her direction.

True constipation often becomes a problem during potty training. A child who's pressed to train before he's ready might decide to withhold his bowel movements as a way of exerting control. The more he holds it in, the more impacted the stool becomes, making it painful to get rid of. The lesson here: Don't push potty training. After all, now that you're a diaper expert yourself, why let all that knowledge go to, er, waste before you have to?

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