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Off Again, On Again

Diapering can be a chore and a bore – or a wonderful, sociable time for mother and child.

As you start life at home with your new baby, you are probably full of questions, hopes, and expectations. How will you cope with the changes and challenges ahead, and what will this new life be like? Experts seem to emerge almost every day with new theories on what is best for your child.

Diapering, however, is one area that few experts have found worthy of attention. Even though the average infant is diapered about 5,000 times, and even though we know that the repetition of events tends to create habits or patterns. Many of us still don’t realize how important diapering and other such seemingly “simple” activities can be.

You may have heard other parents say, “Between diapering, feeding, and attending to my baby’s needs – not to mention my own – I have no time or energy left just to be with my baby.” Few parents regard diapering as valuable time spent with their infants. It is more commonly thought of as a hygienic task to prevent diaper rash and keep the baby fresh-smelling and comfortable. But it can be much more – a time for play as well as learning.

The parent’s attitude toward diapering makes all the difference. If the mother, for example, perceives diapering as merely a chore she will do it quickly and efficiently, often putting a toy into the baby’s hand to distract him. There is little eye contact or communication as the mother concentrates on the lower half of the infant’s body. If the baby cries or protests, the mother often hurries even more, telling the baby, “We will be through in no time, and then we can play together. “

But what does this tell a baby? A brisk, mechanical style of diapering gives the baby a negative message – that caring for the body and for bodily functions is unpleasant. This idea is reinforced when a toy is given to the infant while he is being diapered. He is encouraged to turn his attention away from his body, away from the task in progress, and away from his mother.

On the other hand, if the mother views diapering as an opportunity for loving and learning, a great deal can be accomplished beyond tidying up. The process of changing a diaper can teach a baby about paying attention, anticipating events, and the joy of accomplishing a task together. Performed lovingly, diapering can give the infant a sense of security, a feeling of being loved and respected. It can help to lay the foundation for a child’s positive self-image.

Following are some guidelines to demonstrate how you might proceed to make diapering enjoyable. While we emphasize diapering here, the suggestions can also turn feeding, dressing and bathing into pleasurable learning experiences.

PREPARE: Have everything ready so you will not have to search for pins, cream or water. Take the phone off the hook or simply don’t answer, so you will not be interrupted. Tell your baby, “I’m taking the phone off the hook now because this time is just for you and me.” This reinforces how important the task is for both of you.

OBSERVE: If he is absorbed in something, do not unexpectedly scoop the baby up from behind. Give him some warning and time to adjust. Greet your baby. Say, “You seem to be having a good time with your rubber giraffe, but I’d like to pick you up and change you.” Wait until you have his attention before going further.

GET HIS COOPERATION: Allow time for your infant to make eye contact, study your face, initiate play, follow your actions and respond to you – and you to hi. Say, “you don’t seem quite ready. I can wait a little.” Then, when he stops looking at his giraffe, you can smile and go on: “Now you’re ready – up you go.”

EXPLAIN: Now that he is a partner in the changing, you can explain patiently what you are going to do: “First we have to take off your overalls. You pull your foot out. Good.” Babies enjoy following directions and feel rewarded by your words of praise and your smile. But they outgrow this stage too. They become mischievous and “teasing.” You might ask for a foot and your child will stretch out a hand. Follow his initiative and go along with the joke, saying something like, “Why, this foot looks like a hand!”

Sometimes, no matter how attentively you care for your infant, things will not go smoothly. It is not uncommon for newborn infants to protest against any sort of change, such as diapering, bathing or even being picked up or put down. Many infants do not like to be naked or exposed to changes in temperature; others startle when we pick them up, put them down or change their position. All of these experiences are new and may seem overwhelming to a newborn.

Consider it a challenge. This could be your opportunity to practice being calm, slow and relaxed in the face of adversity. Your attitude will eventually reassure and calm your baby.

Diapering the newborn may not begin as a pleasant experience, but as her initial sensitivity to change is overcome, you will enter a “honeymoon” period that may last a few months. As the baby becomes more mobile, she may not like to stay on her back on the changing table. Diapering an eight-month-old can be difficult, but it can still be a playful time if you do not get frazzled by a wiggling, teasing baby. By the time your baby is a walker, she may prefer being diapered in a standing position. Throughout all these changing times, keep communicating with her.

Adopting a personalized approach to diapering promotes the development of the baby’s self-confidence, trust and cooperation. It also encourages an infant in the difficult, but crucial and exciting, struggle for autonomy. An infant who is encouraged to actively participate in her care will be challenged as she grows older to become an increasingly independent child. Approaching diapering as quality time with your baby will give her the feeling that you value your time together, and, more important, that you value her as a person.

Parents often spend their energy working too hard, trying too hard, buying expensive toys and following complex curricula, all the while forgetting what should be evident: The unglamorous, everyday, routine experiences like feeding, dressing bathing and diapering can actually provide the best opportunities for parents and infants to develop cooperation, respect and a loving understanding of each other.

Magda Gerber is the founder and director of the nonprofit organization, Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), an educational center in Los Angeles. For more information, write RIE, 1550 Murray Circle, Los Angeles, CA 90026, or call 213-663-5330.

(Reprinted from a journal entitled: baby!)

Copyright © 2022 Magda Gerber Legacy 

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Black and white ink drawing of an infant laying supine and reaching towards an adult hand which is reaching back to the infant

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