Call me sensitive, but I once saw a diaper change that made me cry. In fact, I can cry just thinking about it. It was a scene from a film about the The Pikler Institute, the highly respected orphanage in Budapest, Hungary, founded by pediatrician and infant expert Dr. Emmi Pikler. The camera focuses on a 3-week-old new arrival being welcomed with a diaper change. We hear the caregiver speaking slowly and see her gentle touches. The subtitles read, “Now I will lift your legs. I will move the diaper under you”. She pauses after she explains each action, giving the infant a few moments to respond and anticipate what will happen next. Several minutes later, the delicate task completed, the caregiver says quietly to the tiny, trusting person, “I think you will like it here.”
Diaper changes are built for intimacy. And all we need to turn diapering from a difficult, dreaded chore into a mutually gratifying experience is to change our perception, to appreciate the moment as an opportunity for developing a closer partnership with our child. Remembering to slow down, to include our baby instead of distracting him, ask for his assistance, use gentle “asking hands” instead of busy, efficient ones can literally transform a mundane task into a time of mutual enrichment.
It will not always be easy. Toddlers test. That’s what they are supposed to do. A toddler has failed if he makes life too easy for us. Here are some ideas for making the most of diaper changes with our infants and toddlers:
Set the tone with a respectful beginning. I’m amazed when parents stop a child in his tracks to open the back of his pants without warning, or say, “Ew, smelly! Someone needs a diaper change!” It’s all I can do to refrain from asking, “Would you like to be treated that way? If you passed gas in public would we be waving our hands, holding our noses and grabbing at your pants?”
Children don’t like to be interrupted when they are playing, and most diaper changes can be postponed until there is a lull in an infant or toddler’s activity. Wait for a break in your child’s play and then say discreetly, “Please let me check your diaper now”. Then, “We’re going to change your diaper.” If the child walks, you might give the option, “Would you like to walk to the changing table or shall I carry you?” If he resists, you may be able to give him the choice of a bit more time. “I see you’re still playing. In five minutes we will change your diaper.”Toddlers crave autonomy and are more amenable to cooperation when we respect their need to make some decisions.
Give undivided, unplugged attention. Embrace this time together, and your baby will, too. Release yourself from other concerns to focus for these few minutes on your child. Slow down. Even the youngest infants sense our hurry or distraction, and it makes them tense and resistant, rather than willing participants. Our slow, gentle touch breeds trust.
If the child seems distracted, acknowledge it and wait. “You hear that loud siren. I hear it, too. Now, it seems to have passed. Are you ready for me to unsnap your pajama?” Or, “You’re crying. Did I lie you down too quickly? Do you need me to hold you for a moment before we start?
Ask for your baby’s assistance. Remind yourself to pay attention to the whole person, not just his lower half. Don’t do anything without telling him first. Not only are we treating him with respect by telling him what is happening, we are encouraging him to absorb language with all his senses (the cold wipes, the sound of the snaps on his pajamas).
You will find joy in your baby’s responsiveness. He soon shows you he can place his hands through a sleeve, contract his abdominal muscles to help you lift his bottom, hold the diaper and the diaper cream. When diapering time is finished and we ask, “Are you ready for me to pick you up?” our baby will learn to extend his arms to us in reply. Surprisingly, even the youngest infants respond when we ask to pick them up by preparing their muscles for a change in altitude and position.
Be flexible. Stay open to new possibilities. When infants become mobile, they need us to adjust to their needs as best we can. A baby might wish to roll to his tummy to be wiped, or be in an all fours crawling position. The toddler may need to stand and be changed on a pad on the floor. Continue to ask for cooperation, but compromise and allow the child to do things his way if you can make it work.
Imagine new ways your child might be able to be more participatory. Invite him to wipe himself, put on his own cream, take his diaper on or off. Children of all ages want to be trusted to do things for themselves whenever possible. If you keep your mind open to all the possibilities, you will be surprised by all your baby can do.
Remember, your goal is partnership. Are all diaper changes smooth and easy? No way! A securely attached child tests us…often. Sometimes we start off on the wrong foot, the baby is too tired (or we are) and the whole thing is a disastrous mess. Forget about feeling connected — we may not even like our baby in that moment. These are normal bumps in the road. Best to embrace those, too, and acknowledge to our child, “Wow, that was a tough one together, wasn’t it?”
As Ruth Anne Hammond explains in her insightful book, Respecting Babies: A New Look At Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach, “If [a parent] is usually slow, gentle, and attentive, an occasional lapse is emotionally manageable for the child, and may even be helpful in the process of learning that her parent is human.“
Diapering is not just about getting a job done, or having a clean baby. Our hands are a baby’s introduction to the world. If they touch slowly, gently, and “ask” a child for cooperation rather than demand it, we are rewarded with a relationship bound in trust, respect and the inexorable knowledge of our importance to each other.
“One generally finds that infants are the most content and cheerful in the hands of mothers who move with ceremonious slowness.” –Dr. Emmi Pikler
For more about respectful care practices, please check out Magda Gerber‘s books:Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby… and also my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting