How to change a nappy

The most foul and disgusting part of being a parent?

“Skills required.  You’ll need:

  • The ability to think quickly and make decisions under pressure
  • The ability to keep calm in difficult situations
  • Excellent judgement and problem solving skills
  • An eye for detail and a steady hand”

Bomb disposal technician, UK National Careers Service

What’s the most revolting thing that’s ever happened to you?

Because some pretty revolting things have happened to me.

No, don’t worry – no moral or sexual deviancy.

I’m not about to share any details with you anyway.

But not because I’m shy about it – buy me a drink and I’ll tell you everything…

Seriously, though, I’ve had my fair share of nasty, nasty experiences.  Involving… organic matter of one kind or another.

Stepping in it.  Falling into it.  Finding it in unexpected places.  Coming into contact with it in unexpected ways.

None of them deliberate, you’ll be pleased to hear.

With a couple of unfortunate exceptions.

Surviving these incidents can help us to desensitise.  A little.

Doesn’t make it better.  Doesn’t make it easier.  But you know there’s light – and, more importantly, soap – at the end of the tunnel.

Unless there’s something not quite right about your lifestyle, these are infrequent, accidental experiences.

And then, one day, you find out that you’re going to be a parent.  And being a parent means – amongst other, more delightful things – changing nappies.  Cleaning your soiled child.  Becoming intimately acquainted with the waste of another human being.

Popular comedy in all its forms would have us believe that changing a nappy is the most comically vile and abhorrent mainstream activity known to humanity.  A thing at which to laugh uproariously, lest we be overcome by dread.

I suspect it has probably been this way since the dawn of the diaper.

Or its prehistoric equivalent.

Pre-fatherhood, my behaviour in proximity to a nappy change was akin to discovering a large, angry wasp in the office.  Move away in a manner that suggests rational and polite aversion, whilst attempting to disguise escalating horror, and escape to safety.

And now?

We’d intentionally invited this nightmare into our lives.

We’d have to change nappies.  Lots of them.  Several times a day.  For several years.

I was beside myself with apprehension.

Now, I am what I have recently learned to refer to as a ‘proactive coper’…

For our purposes, we can define proactive coping as anticipating situations that cause us stress and taking action before the event to help mitigate the stressful impact.

…which is why I turned to my pregnant wife with the suggestion that we practice nappy changing using a baby doll smeared with our own… you know.

Needless to say, Emma did not look favourably upon my proposal.

Once past the initial panicky derangement, I turned to the books.  Of course, in their professional and objective wisdom, it’s rare that reference books about… bodily stuff can convey the true… texture of any physical experience.  Or the mood and fluctuations thereof.  What these situations demand of us in the doing, and how they unfold, cannot ‘by numbers’ be truly understood and appreciated.

In other words, as with everything else in life, the reality of nappy changing is meant to be a surprise.

Like a lucky dip full of urine and faeces.

Or, to borrow from Sally Field’s character in Forrest Gump, changing a nappy “…is a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Not chocolates, though.  Not in this case.

A good nappy change is quick, clean and painless for everyone involved.  A bad nappy change, on the other hand, is quite the opposite.  It all depends on a broad range of variable factors, including:

  1. Who needs changing
  2. How old they are
  3. How well they are
  4. What kind of mood they’re in
  5. What they’ve been eating and drinking
  6. What time it is
  7. Where you are
  8. What kind of mood you’re in
  9. How well equipped you are
  10. Your approach to nappy changing

The final three are the ones you have most control over.

Changing a nappy is as much about mitigating the risk of accidents as it is about baby’s wellbeing.  Left unchanged, a nappy will eventually reach capacity, with unfortunate consequences.  However, changing a nappy can in itself precipitate unfortunate consequences.

Fortunately, the right attitude, preparation and technique can help you overcome what might otherwise be a no-win situation.

Attitude:

Your child is upset.  Crying.  Something is wrong.  And then: that familiar odour.  Nature has called and left a message.  An abusive one.  Time to take action.  Take control.  Nappy disposal.  Infant hygiene restoration.  Lock down and neutralise the threat.

Stay calm.

Focus.

You are about to enter an extreme situation.

This is not a crisis.  Maintain your composure.  You have a job to do.  Let go of the tension.  Breathe.

Possibly not through your nose.

Be confident.  Believe in success.  Choose not to recognise the likelihood of failure. 

Bomb disposal experts talk about entering a zen-like state.  That is where you need to be.  Clear your mind.  Let the world around you fade away.  There is only you and the filthy lower half of your immediate descendant.

Feel the adrenaline.  Channel it.  Use it.  Do not let it control you.

Heightened senses.  Total concentration.  Total precision.

Focus.

Because if you don’t, your anxiety will escalate.  Your fight or flight instinct will kick in.  In your distressed or antagonised state you will mishandle the situation.  You may cause the very complication you were desperate to avoid.  You may alarm, upset and discomfort your child.

I know.  I’ve done it.  For Adam’s first few months, we agreed I should not change his nappy.  It wound me up something terrible.

Why so stressed?  Read on, my friend…

One final thought on attitude, though.  For all that positive thinking will serve you well, reconcile yourself also with the potential consequences of a mishap.  Know that you can – and will – survive it.  If you are at peace with what could happen, you will be at peace with what is happening.

Having to wash your baby and their clothing, or yourself and your clothing, or your carpet and anything else in the immediate vicinity – or indeed all of the above – is not the worst thing that could happen.

Preparation:

Before nappy changing can commence, the nappy changing environment must be primed.

If you maintain a dedicated nappy changing station, which is always accessible, always ready and always stocked with everything you need, good for you.

Our nappy changing station is more like a mobile response unit – assembling at ground zero when the alarm is raised.  This can – in theory – save valuable seconds.

It also – in theory – saves space.

Unlike a crack team of emergency service specialists, however, each member needs to be tracked down and frogmarched back into action, like a bad movie about has-been heroes.

First we need the change mat – a robust, cushioned layer between baby and carpet – because it provides (a) physical comfort for baby, and (b) psychological comfort for us.

Position the change mat on the floor and clear the perimeter, to protect any items that might otherwise become collateral damage.  You may wish, however, to place one or two items strategically near the head of the change mat, to keep baby distracted.

We recommend: things that are easy to clean.

I mentioned that the change mat provides psychological comfort for parents.  Your change mat will probably have a raised border.  You will probably believe that this shallow ridge of foam, covered in a wipe-clean surface, will suffice to protect your carpet from spills.

No.  You are wrong.  Come here so I can slap you.

*SLAP*

Right, now listen up:

During a nappy change, one of four types of accident can happen.  The first is ‘the sprinkler’.  Your child will begin to urinate and it will fountain all over the place.  Boy or girl.  It can easily clear the border of your change mat.  The second is ‘the laser’.  Your child will begin to defecate and, in its pre-solids liquid state, the pressure can fire it outwards like soda from a ruptured can.

I have seen it happen.  I have knelt in front of a tiny bottom as this terrible weapon engaged.  Fortunately, it was angled slightly away.  Not fortunate for everything in the line of fire.

As you might imagine, you need more coverage than the average change mat can provide.

Meanwhile…

The third type of accident is ‘the seeper’.  Your child will begin to urinate and it will simply leak out of them like the contents of a toppled bottle.  It can fill the change mat, as though you had lain your baby down in a shallow pool of its own urine.  The fourth is ‘the sludger’.  Your child will begin to defecate and it will pile up between their legs – possibly foamed, like aerosol cream.  It can become unmanageable.

As you might imagine, you need something absorbent on one side, but waterproof on the other, that you can easily gather up and dispose of.

We turned to Pampers change mats.  These are absolutely ideal – and also come in handy for potty training – but can get expensive if you want to use them for every change.

Fortunately, Emma was a hairdresser in a previous life, and suggested we try couch roll.  Couch roll (large, disposable sheets of flimsy paper – absorbent on one side, waterproof on the other) is widely used in the health and beauty industry.  And it’s highly economical.  For example, I can buy a roll of 100 perforated sheets (each approximately half a metre squared) for about £5.

So, once your change mat is in position, lay a sheet of your protective liner over the top of it.

By the way, we always put our change mat on the floor because elevation increases the potential range of any projectile accidents that may occur.  You have been warned.

Next we need some wipes.  In the context of nappy changing, I recommend that your packet of wipes is at least an inch think.  I.e. plenty in there.  If the nearest packet is almost empty, grab a contingency packet.  Yes, sometimes you can complete a change with only four or five wipes, but sometimes you can use enough to fill two nappy bags.

I also recommend pulling several wipes out before you start.  Wipes do not want to leave their packet, or each other, especially the last remaining few.   They cling stubbornly, causing the packet to dance around as you tug on them.  Many times I’ve tried to whip a fresh wipe from the packet, only instead to whip the entire packet across the room.

Nappy bags, of course.  Opened and ready.

I say ‘bags’ rather than ‘bag’, because sometimes you’ll need something to contain soiled clothes.

And a nappy.  For the love of all that is good and holy, do not start changing one nappy without having its replacement immediately to hand.  Every second is a second too long, when baby bottoms are exposed.

Straight from the packet, nappies are closed and compressed.  Open them up, get them ready to use.  Know which side is front from back.

Last, but not least, have carpet cleaner ready and available.  It doesn’t have to be immediately to hand, just somewhere nearby.  You probably won’t need it, but it’s good to know it’s there.

Technique:

Don’t expect to discover natural talent on your first attempt.  Regardless of how many books we read and how many veterans we speak to, mastery comes with experience.  Your nappy changing capability will build over the first couple of months, developing a technique that works for you.  The core elements of nappy changing remain the same from one parent to another, of course, but beyond that our approaches vary.

So, take heed of advice, but know that you will find your own way, in your own time.

This was my technique, during the first twelve months:

Step One: Assume the position

Gather up your child and transfer them to the changing mat.  Kneel down in front.

Collect all your pre-picked wipes.  Tuck them into your armpit.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain later.

Undress your baby.  Remove their outer clothing.

Undo the poppers on their vest.  Lift up the front and examine the edges of the nappy leg cuff.  If there are signs of leakage, you may wish to remove the vest entirely, pulling it down over their body.  If not, simply pull the front and back of the crotch up and out of the way.

Ok, before we go any further, I need to explain something.  Prior to becoming a parent I read that opening a baby’s nappy cools their genital region, precipitating urination.  To avoid disaster, open the nappy for a moment, then close it again.  Any bonus wee can be caught safely in the nappy.

Risk averse but impatient, I implemented this wisdom as follows:

  1. Undo and open nappy
  2. Blow onto genitals as though blowing out birthday cake candles
  3. Close nappy
  4. Repeat until confident that all available urine has been passed into the nappy

Whilst on the subject of temperature, let’s talk about those wipes you’ve got stuffed into your armpit.  Supposedly, it’s less distressful for baby if the wipes aren’t cold.

Given that it’ll be a hot day in hell before I let anyone near my genitals with a cold rag, I’m inclined to understand and sympathise.

Of course, wipes kept at room temperature are unlikely to be cool, let alone cold.  Just to be safe, though, during the first few months – and especially at night – we’d stash those wipes somewhere close and cosy whilst using them.

You can buy special devices that warm your wipes for you, but that just seems ludicrous.  Instead, like a hamster with mouthfuls of lettuce stored in its cheeks, I knelt before my child with my armpits clamped tightly on handfuls of wipes.

Did it make and keep the wipes warm?  Yes.  Did I have fresher armpits?  Yes.  Did it make any difference to my children?  No idea.

Step Three: Engage target

Open the nappy and pull the front down and out of the way, leaving the other side under your baby’s bottom.

The inside-front of the nappy can now be used a surface for dumping used wipes.

If you’re right-handed, like me, take hold of baby’s legs with your left hand.  My preferred grip is holding their right leg between my thumb and forefinger, whilst holding their left leg between my forefinger and middle finger.

It looks like I’m about to stuff a chicken.

Yes, now you only have one hand free, but you also have control of their lower body.  Lift them; lower them; move them from side to side.

Remain wary, though.  Like a scorpion held by its tail, the other end remains a risk.  At least you control the most dangerous end.  Better than nothing.

Step Four: Decontamination

Now, one wipe at a time, wipe (or scoop) as required until every area (and not just the baby) is as clean as you require.

While you shouldn’t clean inside the genitalia, or wipe back to frontheaven forbid – sometimes you have no choice.  Just be careful.

Step Five: Deploy the device

With everything dirty safely contained in nappy bags, grab that new nappy and get it on baby ASAP.

If you’re like me, you may lose time fiddling with the nappy tabs until they are positioned symmetrically and tight enough to be secure without cutting off circulation.

Oh, and don’t forget to check frilly lining around the leg cuffs.  Make sure it’s sticking out.  Tucking them in will compromise the seal, rendering all your effort useless.

And then you’re done.  Safe.  Put all rubbish in the bin.  Wash your hands.  Relax.

Until next time…

Soon Emma and I will have no more ‘next times’.  We’ve been changing nappies for nearly five years.  We hope to train Adam out of them this summer.

I’m not going to miss it, obviously, but it’s never been as disgusting as I originally expected.

When I think now of all the revolting things that have happened to me, changing my children’s nappies is not on the list.

Challenging, sometimes.  A bit stressful.  A nuisance.  But not revolting.

This may be due – at least in part – to the fact that we pass our microbes on to our children along with our DNA.  The bacterial population of our guts are responsible for the smell of our waste and, because we each host an entirely unique family of bacteria, the smell of our waste is unique from person to person. 

Generally speaking, we find our own waste less offensive than that of other people.  Theoretically, therefore, because our children share our bacteria, their waste resembles our own and is less offensive to us than it might otherwise be.

So, we recognise ourselves in their faces, and we recognise ourselves in their faeces.  Comforting – in a weird, horrible, biological way.

And in that weird, horrible, biological way, while our parent-child bonding gets underway at the top end through eye contact, smiles and kisses, it’s no less provided for through all our activity at the other end.  I.e. nappy changing.

In other words: it’s a beautiful thing.

Enjoy it while you can.

[…says the man who can see light – and, oh yes, soap – at the end of the tunnel…]

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