Dealing With Diaper Changing Disasters

Dear Janet,

I stumbled upon your website a few weeks ago and have been slowly reading my way through the articles (which I love!). I appreciate your guidance and your gentle and respectful approach to parenting.

I am a single mom to a 14-month old baby boy, Aidan. While he is a delight 99.99% of the time, he is now starting to test his boundaries and check out his (and my!) limits during diaper changes. He kicks, shouts, and tries to hit me during the diaper process, so now it has become something I absolutely dread. I’m sure he can feel my stress, which I think exacerbates the problem, but of course, it’s a necessary part of our day (I use cloth diapers too, which means more changes per day than with disposables!). I try to stay calm and tell him it hurts me when he hits and kicks, but so far nothing has changed. I realize it is not fun to change the course of a fun day (whether he’s playing or reading or getting ready to eat, or go outside, etc), but even with me preparing him verbally and telling him we will resume/start the fun activity after, he is a nightmare to change! Of course, with his kicking, hitting and shouting, the process takes longer – something I wish I could get across to him!

If you have any words of advice that I could use to make our diaper change process go a bit more smoothly, I would be so grateful!

Many thanks,

Colleen 

Hi Colleen,

Thanks for your kind words!

Smooth diaper changes might have to remain a sweet remembrance of your boy’s younger months, but here are some ideas for improving the situation for both of you…

1. Perspective. Testing is exactly what your toddler is supposed to be doing right now, so don’t fret. You are absolutely right about your stress making things worse. Remember, he’s a tiny person and you’re a much bigger grown-up. Don’t let his behavior get to you!

Take a deep breath and project a sense of not only calm, but confidence…believe this is no big deal at all. “Act as if”, and you’ll soon feel less stressed and more able to give him the security he’s looking for from you. Be the duck gliding on the water, though probably kicking your feet furiously below the surface. Let go of the situation a little. This is not a disaster (though I loved your “diaper changing disaster” subject line), an exam or measurement of your abilities as a mother.

2. A place of strength. Very important… when he hits, kicks, etc., don’t say “that hurts me”, unless you can say it in a very neutral manner. In other words, don’t expect him to stop what he’s doing out of sympathy for you. Not that he isn’t a lovely guy, he just isn’t there with the sympathy yet (maybe in a few years).  Instead, he’s asking you to help him by providing firmer guidance. He needs to be assured that his mommy can and will stop him from doing things that hurt or bother her or are unsafe. Stop him as gently but confidently as you can, rather than appealing to him to stop, because when you do that you seem a little weak and he’s then left feeling uncomfortably powerful. Come from a place of strength rather than weakness. It may seem like a subtle difference, but children are very sensitive to our tone and demeanor in these situations.

3. Stop him. Hold his feet or hands (gently, but firmly) and say, “I won’t let you hit me” or “I don’t want you to hit me” while remaining calm and matter-of-fact. If he repeats the action, just stop him again the same way.

4. Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge (another magic parenting word). Rather than telling him how fun it’s going to be afterwards, focus on acknowledging and validating his point-of-view. For example (as you suggested): “I realize it is not fun to change the course of a fun day” (whether he’s playing or reading or getting ready to eat, or go outside, etc.)” Add to that some acknowledgements about what’s going on in the moment, like “I know it’s hard to hold still while I fasten your diaper. You feel like hitting me, but I won’t let you. We’ll stop for a moment so that you can calm down. You look uncomfortable… let’s find another position that you can stay in while I wipe you off. “

5. Be flexible. Give him the option of standing and bending over for wipes, if you can manage that safely. If not, consider changing him on the floor.

6. Slow down. Include, rather than distract him. See the humor. Our babies grow and change at a rapid pace. It’s hard to remember that they are able to do new things on an almost daily basis. Keep your mind open to new ways he can participate. Let him hold things, do things, make choices. Ask for his assistance (from a place of strength, like a confident boss would). Do all you can to make diapering a shared task, rather than something you are doing to him. Let him try fastening the diaper cover. Squeeze out a little diaper cream for him to apply on himself. It doesn’t matter if he does a less than stellar job of it.

Slow down. Rather than rush when he’s screaming, kicking and hitting, go even slower. Take a little break and just acknowledge. “This is crrrazy today!” Finding humor in the situation might inspire you to be playful, create some silly “in” jokes and diapering games together. Children adore them and they provide a reason to look forward to the next diaper change.

These suggestions are applicable to feedings, baths, dressing, bedtime rituals, just about any toddler situation. When you take on the persona of a confident leader and your overall demeanor is relaxed, accepting, and inclusive, the struggles should subside…or at least not bother you as much.

Hope this helps…

Warmly,

Janet

(More about respectful care in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting)

(Photo by bradfordnoble on Flickr.)

53 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet, thank you for your blog. I am a frequent reader and new mom. I always benefit from your content. It inspires great discussions between my husband and I as we set our template for the parents we want to be. Please continue!!

    1. Amanda, thank you! That is the best feedback I could ever get.

  2. Thank you! I have the same problem with my 21 month old on a daily basis and this article gives me hope 🙂

  3. That’s exactly what we did.My daughter is 19 months now and when I put a nappy changer on the ground,I as her to lie down for me and she does:) Sometimes she runs away and I let her,but she comes back in a minute or two and lies down.
    I also explained her every time that she is not helping herself,because it takes longer and nappy has to be changed anyway.

  4. it’s possible that your baby doesn’t like having his diaper changed for a very good reason. I wonder if you’ve ever heard of ‘Elimination COmmunication’ it’s a method in which by responding to your child’s cues, (facial expressions, body movements etc) you can help them to use a toilet or potty from birth. I’ve just been reading a book about it called ‘Diaper Free Baby’ in which the author explains how babies are born naturally not wanting to soil themselves, and obviously need a parents help not to do this! Perhaps it’s this natural dislike of the diaper process that is why your baby objects to it so much.

    1. Lucinda, I can understand why parents choose the EC method and see some positives, but I’ve observed hundreds of babies, and it is simply untrue that infants mind “soiling themselves”. That is an adult perception and projection. Yes, we can teach babies to mind soiling themselves through the EC method. The only infants and toddlers I have seen who seem upset when they “soil themselves” are the ones who have become used to parents running them to a potty. These children look panicked and anxious when they are in a social situation in which they need to wear a diaper (like a play group) and have to “go”. Some get very upset when they have soiled their diapers. The practices we choose have a profound influence on our babies…which is something to always keep in mind…

      1. Just to clarify, are you of the opinion that is a waste of time before true potty training to EC? To me, it is natural that a person (baby or not) would not be comfortable sitting in their own poo or pee, but it seems that you are blaming EC parents for influencing their babes to feel “panicked and anxious” when they wear and dirty their diapers. It requires contant observation and communication, and many dry runs to the potty, but for my daugther EC has worked since she was a newborn. If you want to let parents off the hook for not doing it, that’s fine, it’s clearly not a necessary or life changing thing for our kiddos. But using less diapers and having less mess to clean up is quite rewarding, for baby and me. I am curious how one could have a negative perception of EC.

        1. Amanda, I’m not “blaming” anyone for anything. All I’ve shared are my observations. In my many years observing thousands of babies, the only children I have seen “panicked and anxious” about soiling diapers were those whose parents taught them (through their EC practices) that soiling diapers was to be avoided. I don’t have enough experience with EC to say whether it is a waste of time or not. I think that would depend on the parents goals… I do know that young children thrive best when there is consistency…so that they know what to expect and what’s expected of them.

  5. Once again – so timely for me Janet! I was *just* going to email you a similar plea for advice. Our 10-month-old has just switched diaper changing from the most fun time and giggles and savored time to back-arching, turning mayhem. The angles I now achieve while wiping are acrobatic at times. So I’ve been trying to channel you and acknowledging that she doesn’t enjoy it and then talking about what we’ll do next or offer her a small toy or diaper cream to hold (this helps sometimes). I wonder now that I probably will switch to be more present-tense when I talk and simply talk about her not liking it right now and avoid the “future” talk. I really like the idea of moving the changing pad to the floor or bed to “change things up” for a bit [ha! pun!) :)] too. I think that will enable me to slow down more and make it more of an activity than something I need a few breaths to go into.

    As always, thank you so much for your advice and practical tips – your posts and kind words are such a blessing!!

  6. I’m in the same boat since the little one turned 8 months. Try reasoning with a now 11 month old 🙁 I stay calm and do it. It’s just I hate using force to keep her down.

    There’s a mid way between elimination communication and diaper training quite late. I come from a completely different culture where most kids are trained by the time they are 2. But living here in Europe I had no clue how to start early. I just wanted to recommend a book to parents who want to start potty training early. “Diaper Free before 3”. The author does a wonderful job of explaining where the “readiness” concept comes from (spoiler, it is an opinion not a scientific fact) and what the alternatives are. I found her method gentle and respectful, and most importantly, makes sense. That humans need to wait so long for potty training did not.

    1. I think sometimes it is hard to reason even with 20-month old.I think it is a good habit for a parent and keeps the communication between child and parent.

      I was always giving my child a nappy, wipes or a jar of cream to play with.Now when she needs changing,she will even tell me if i forget the cream!She lies down when I ask her to.Although it required patience and smile.No anger,no rush and lots of firmness as well.

    2. Kay, 11 month old’s can be reasoned with, especially if they are used to being spoken to respectfully. BUT, understanding what mommy wants and deciding to go along with it are two very different things. Children need us to calmly reason with them, work with them as much as possible and then sometimes lovingly insist. A strong will is healthy and positive if one’s parents aren’t angered or intimidated by it.

      Regarding early potty training, children can come out of this unscathed, but in my years of experience as a parent mentor I’ve found that this is risky…both physically and emotionally. Toilet learning can (and should, in my opinion) come easily and naturally to children. But that means parents trusting, following and supporting the child’s developmental process and staying of the way. I see no need to either write or read books about something children do as naturally as they learn to walk, if we can just trust them.

      1. Following the baby’s natural lead and potty training early aren’t mutually exclusive. My firstborn never liked sitting in her poo. (I know you say this doesn’t happen, but it did for her, and my new daughter seems to be the same: otherwise unexplained crying can be completely fixed by changing her nappy.) At eleven months she was sitting on the floor making a poo face. ‘Are you doing a poo?’ I asked. ‘When you’ve finished I’ll change your nappy.’ I looked over to her again a couple of minutes later and she was staring at me. When she was sure she had my attention she signed ‘all done’.

        Shortly after that I introduced a potty. As soon as she twigged that she could say ‘totty poo!’ and I would arrange it so she didn’t have to sit in her poo for any time at all, she was right there (from about 13 months). Pees took a while longer, and it was longer atill before she was out of nappies at nursery, I think because she, possibly rightly, didn’t feel they’d listen to her. (Things improved after I made a fuss.) she was completely dry inthe daytime by 22 months.

        1. I found it so interesting and inspiring to read about your experiences with your daughter. Every child is so different in their styles and paces of potty learning!

          Our baby also hated soiled diapers at first (as a newborn he cried until we changed his diaper) and since we were open to the idea of elimination communication, we began trying it at about 4 months with some success.

          He seemed to enjoy it when we understood his cues on time and brought him to the toilet, and would smile after going pee or poo in there. Then at about 8 months he suddenly stopped liking going in the toilet so we put EC aside for a while.

          Diaper changes have been a struggle for quite some time (he hates them, and fights us like mad) so we really need to re-think our approach. I’ll definitely try some of the suggestions in this article.

          However, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, because at about 19 months old he’s showing a lot of interest in the potty (after seeing older kids at daycare using it). We got him his own potty and keep it prominently displayed in the living room. It’s up to him to initiate potty time, which he often does at least once a day.

          So far he’s been peeing in the potty, but no #2 yet. I keep talking about how he won’t need to wear diapers anymore once he’s learned how to do all his pee and poo in the potty, and I hope that by letting him choose his own pace we help him have a positive transition out of diapers.

  7. As a cloth diapering mom who was beginning to REALLY struggle with diaper changes, I offer this advice: take a break. Use disposables to cut down on the changing times, so you can use those fewer times to be more mindful and change your diaper-changing time habits. Buy enough for a week or two and work on it with your baby. I found the disposables easier to put on while standing up, easier to get it done very fast so we could keep it light and happy, and it was nice to not have to hunt around for a cover or go spray poo off. Once we had re-defined diaper changing time, we reintroduced cloth!

  8. Hello everyone,

    I work with the Toddlers and during my Montessori training I was introduced to stand up diapering.The process is so easy and the children who are able to stand find it comfortable and and do not fuss at all.Maybe you guys who are facing problems with your older toddlers can try it.I think any Montessori teacher will be able to show you how it is done.Enjoy your little ones they grow up so fast!

    1. Yes, standing changes, those are great. We also practice standing changes, even for the bms. It is respectful, and creates a more collaborative interaction by allowing a child to be more independent and active in their changes.

      It’s also nice to give a warning, let a child know that ‘soon it will be time to check your diaper’. With my own child I would set a timer – actually I had him help to set it. I explained that ‘when the timer goes off, it will be time to check your diaper’. Then when the timer rang off, I would have him turn it off himself. I found that removed me a little from the equation, and it was less a power stuggle where I was telling him to change his diaper, and more of the timer is going off, so it’s time to check your diaper.

      1. Thanks for the timer suggestion! I try to do standing changes with my extremely diaper change resistant toddler and sometimes he’s ok with it but much of the time he isn’t and won’t stay standing up (but also fights the lying down position). I look forward to trying your idea, & maybe will get a little timer that he could use (our only timer is the one on our stove).

  9. I have so many problems with this with our 10 month old. He instantly rolls over to his tummy and starts crawling. He doesn’t get on hands and knees so can’t really change him on his front and he isn’t standing yet. I usually end up just acknowledging that he doesn’t like it and explain to him that I need to change his nappy and need him on his back to do it and then essentially use force as gently as I can to keep him on his back for long enough to quickly change his nappy or in moments of desperation distract him with singing, but this doesn’t feel like a great way of dealing it. If I give him something to hold it gets thrown and he then pushes my hand wanting me to give it back to him. Even thinking about it makes me feel exhausted!

  10. Diaper changing time is one of my favorite times for one-on-one singing, and talking. I have absolutely had my share of babies who struggle through it, but it helps to make that known to them as a time for singing songs, and saying fun nursery rhymes together. It engages them and can help those few minutes become a special time for the two of you together.

  11. We have found in Montessori Nidos and Infant Communities that dressing and changing any garment becomes a collaborative effort from the start when caregivers give time and encouragement for helpfulness. Even infants can learn to assist by pushing an arm into a sleeve or raising a leg to put into a pair of pants. As soon as children can stand, they can become even more active in the process if their efforts are expected and appreciated. The secret is it the cooperative relationships we build with the children. The more we give them time to be involved, the more they become responsible for the process.

    1. Yes ,my four month old loves sticking her legs out straight for trousers!

  12. This was great advice. I had the same problem for several months with my 13 month old and I was always so embarrassed to change him anywhere because he screamed, kicked and through tantrums when it was time. I would get so jealous watching my mother in law change his diaper because he NEVER kicked and screamed for her. When I realized why I noticed that she talked softly, was not flustered, sang silly songs in a whisper and my son loved that. It did take a while, but I am never stressed to diaper change him anymore and we actually laugh and sing silly songs togehter to make it enjoyable. Thank you!

  13. This was such great advice and I have to testify that it worked! My son had started kicking me and everything off of the changing table around 17 months. He would raise his legs up high and slam them down hard on the wood surface. I am sure this hurt his heels, but he enjoyed me frantically trying to keep the wipes and diapers in place. He would then roll over and try to play with the frame hanging on the wall above the table. After reading this post I realized how my frantic energy fueld the fire and started calmly catching his legs when he kicked at me and firmly holding them down saying “I will not let you kick me.” I told him I understood that he did not want to lay here, but we needed to change his diaper and then we could go for a walk etc. I asked him to help wipe or pat dry with a cloth after I wipe (we use cloth diapers too). After a few days I noticed he was just laying on the table not kicking or fighting me at all. I realized the technique had worked. It’s not a sweaty, stressful mess now and we get through the changes much faster. There are times when he still tests if he is overtired, but it’s rare and I know exactly why he is doing it. He really responds well to “I won’t let you do X.” Thank you for these tips. I have been pleasantly surprised at how well staying calm works and I feel so much better.

    1. Great story, Jen! YES…. Slowing down, talking to babies calmly and respectfully, inviting them to participate in activities like diaper changing makes a huge difference. Our energy sets the tone. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Jen, you are so welcome. Thank you for sharing this success story! I think it’s helpful to remember that our energy always sets the tone.

  14. avatar Vanessa B. says:

    Thank you so much. You have helped our family a lot with your kind words and ideas.

  15. This was very timely as I have been struggling with my little guy as well. I really like the balance of parental and children’s boundaries in your blog. Teaching respect by example. Great read!

  16. I have followed your advice on the site for diaper change time and often am very proud of my boy when we have to change in public.. or home. He just accepts it and calmly waits for it to be over then carries on. Its fun really… today he actually went and plonked himself down on his change mat on the floor and put his head to the ground ready for me to put him on his back! Now i need to research doctor visits… he has been sick alot in the last few months and now just hates anything to do with looking in ears, taking temperature etc.

  17. Gentle leader… gentle leader… gentle leader… I got these words from reading your articles and try to drill them into my head! 🙂

  18. I’m the mother of four and grandmother of five. I believe children are looking for boundaries. The two questions they wordlessly ask are, “Do you love me?” and can I get away with anything I want?”. I have found that a combination of firmness and distraction works very well. When my youngest grandson went through that stage I would find something that he hasn’t played with before. A safe object that may or may not be a toy. It works like a charm. Before he gets bored with the new object I’m done!

  19. The other thing that has helped us is diapering one of my 13-month-old daughter’s stuffed animals together. We lay her monkey down, and she can see and help with all the diapering steps. Seeing it from another perspective seems to help her understand what is going on when I change her, making it easier for her to cooperate. I often ask her if she wants to change monkey’s diaper first or if I should just change her diaper, and either she’ll bring monkey over or lay down on the changing pad.

    1. I love this idea, and will try it with my son. Anything that helps him to feel more in control of the situation has a high chance of helping.

  20. I just happened upon this after a google search for my unruly almost 15 month old. I was at my wit’s end with fighting him on every single diaper change. I will definitely give this a try and see if it helps! Thank you for writing it!!

    1. You’re welcome, Anne! Glad we found each other.

  21. I know this is a really old post so not sure if you will see this. My 11 month old daughter cries a lot during diaper changes and sometimes kicks/arches her back. For the last week I have been trying to slow down, tell her what I am about to do, acknowledge that she doesn’t like having her diaper changed, ask her to help me with some parts. It has helped some (especially the asking her to help me) but I am confused on some details of the approach. When she cries, should I wait until she is done crying? Or after I give her a minute, just move on to the next step? Should I try to distract her? Any specifics would be greatly helpful. Thanks!

  22. Rereading, rereading, rereading. My 16 month old has become increasingly fearful of diaper changes away from home – something about being laid down on a changing table, or even the ground, just scares her. We talk through it, and we get through it together, but it is a challenge. And at home… alligator rolls are the game of the moment, and naturally she doesn’t care what the contents of the diaper are! Making it fun does help a little, although it’s hard not to simply distract her. Everything is “no” or “nope” right now, so getting her to engage and help during most tasks is just not happening. Ah, toddlerhood! Every day definitely brings something new!

  23. We are having a really hard time with our 15 month old’s diaper changes. When he is playing, I let him know we have to change his diaper in a few minutes. As soon as we start walking up to his room to change, he begins crying. Once I lay him on the changing table, he immediately begins screaming, arching his back, and trying to roll over. I try to talk calming to him/sing while quickly changing the diaper, but I am nervous he is going to hurt himself as I try to hold him down long enough to change him. I admit I am anxious about changing him, which I am sure is not helping things. I try to remain calm, but it is so stressful. Looking for advice!

  24. I have a question about distractions during diaper changes: I never give my 8 month old anything to play with during the changes, but she distracts herself with her clothes while I’m changing her (we’ve been trying to do Rei since she was about 3 months). I don’t know what to do. She’s also started to cry when I tell her I’m going to put her on the changing table, but by the time I have the diaper off she’s all smiles. We play and have started to do `high fives` after the new diaper is on to reinforce the sense of cooperation when she helps by interacting with me, but I get frustrated when she’d rather eat her clothes than look at me, and that’s when I also check out and do it on my own, and then I feel bad. Should I be waiting her out? And continue after she’s done playing? I so often feel like I’m just failing at this.

      1. Oh Janet, thank you so much. I commented on how much she was enjoying playing with her snaps on the onesie, and you know what she did? She looked up at me and smiled, and then went back to playing with them. It was so precious! I’ve always felt as though she doesn’t know/care if I’m there when she’s looking at her clothes during our changes, but obviously that’s not the case. I felt as though she really enjoyed having me comment on what she was doing and how much she was enjoying it. I listened to the podcast too, and have slowed down even more and that is making a difference for the better you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for all that you do!

      2. … and, now I sit here realising how important it is for her to know deep in her soul that I won’t check out on her just because she’s absorbed and enthralled with something other than me!! Oh Soo much to learn, and relearn, and relearn, and it’s only been 8 months!

        1. Parenting can be an incredible process of discovery if we are thoughtful and open like you are. I hope you realize that you are wonderful!

  25. Gosh! Thank you for this article. I seriously just sat down at my computer just so frustrated because my 14 month old son fights me on his diaper changes. I hate how I respond to his behavior. I love the way that you teach to speak to children respectfully, but I have been losing sight of that every time my son starts kicking me during diaper changes. I kept using force or starting to yell. I hate that it has been my response. SO heart breaking to me.

    In the past he has responded fairly well to the calm and even requests and he’s learned a lot just through my new reactions that I’ve been working on.

    You’ve got some great tips! I’m probably going to have to read this article several more times to keep it in my brain!

  26. I have tried and tried and tried all of your diaper changing advice. It used to work pretty well. Now my daughter is 19 months. Diaper changes are a huge struggle. I try to slow down, talk to her, include her, give her choices. 90% of the time I can barely get her dirty diaper off her and clean her up before she has wiggled away and ran odd diaperless. I could force her to stay, but that would literally mean holding her down through the kicking and screaming. I have tried to slow down the process and really include her, but she has none of it and runs off and hides. I’m not sure why. She will take the clean diaper and put it somewhere, like in a drawer, and keep an eye on it. If I go get it to put on her, she yells and takes it back from me and puts it back in the drawer. I can’t cover all the details about this ordeal, but basically we have this exchange several times a day where I find myself quickly trying to slip the diaper on her before she runs off. My only technique that works about 75% of the time is putting on the clean diaper while she is nursing – which I’m sure qualifies as distraction, but literally nothing else works. Any suggestions that I may not have tried?

    1. Ran off* diaperless

  27. Hi Janet, do you have any further suggestions for dealing with a baby who screams blue murder and twists away with each nappy change? He gets sooooo upset and is very strong, so it feels like I must be hurting him when I hold him still, but I can’t let him roll and crawl away mid poop clean. Nappy changes are such a drama these days!

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