If you’re feeling anxious about how to change a diaper, don’t worry: You’ll get plenty of practice. The average child goes through about 7,000 diapers before becoming toilet trained. After a couple of years, you’ll be a diaper virtuoso.

For now, though, you need to learn the basics. With a few precautions, both you and your baby can breeze through those changes without much fuss or discomfort.

Should I use cloth or disposable diapers?

The popularity of disposable diapers can be summed up in one word: convenience. You don’t have to wash or fold them, and you don’t have to keep a diaper pail in the house. But disposable diapers also have a major downside. A typical disposable diaper costs about 20 cents, but it only costs about 3 cents to wash a cloth diaper. Overall, using cloth diapers will save you about $1,200 per child. Even if you use a diaper service to do your washing, you’ll save more than $500.

Many parents wonder which type of diaper is better for the environment. Again, both types have pros and cons. If you’re concerned about putting thousands of bundles of plastic and human waste in a landfill, cloth diapers may be for you. But cloth diapers can be hard on the environment, too. It takes up to 50 gallons of water and a fair amount of energy to wash a load of diapers. A report from the University of Minnesota Extension Service concluded that neither type of diaper is clearly more environmentally friendly than the other.

How often should I change my baby?

If you can smell it, you should change it. Feces will irritate your baby’s skin, so you don’t want to let a full diaper go for very long. You don’t want to let him soak in a wet diaper, either. If you’re using cloth, you should check his diaper frequently. Disposable diapers are more absorbent. Nonetheless, make sure you don’t wait too long. No matter what type of diaper you use, you should expect to change your baby about six to 12 times a day.

What’s the best way to clean my baby after a messy diaper?

For starters, you should use a wipe without alcohol so it won’t irritate your baby’s skin. You may want to use cotton balls soaked in warm water for a newborn, although hypoallergenic baby wipes may be fine. You could also use a clean washcloth.

Whatever you use, you should wipe from front to back to avoid spreading germs and putting your baby at risk for a urinary tract infection. This is especially important for girls. Also, keep in mind that babies tend to have lots of nooks and even the occasional cranny. Look around, and don’t leave any mess behind.

If you’re diapering a boy, you’ll learn pretty quickly that you need to keep his penis under wraps while you clean him. If you don’t cover it with a washcloth or a wipe, it’s only a matter of time before you get a stream of pee on your shirt or your face.

No matter what type of diaper you use, you should dump as much of the mess in the toilet as you can. This will make cloth diapers easier to clean and disposable diapers more sanitary. If nothing else, it’s a good way to reduce the “baby stink” in your house. For disposable diapers, some people swear by diaper containers that swath the used diapers in deodorized plastic to contain the odor. Once the container is full, you remove and replace the plastic.

Do I need a changing table?

Changing tables can be convenient, but they can also be dangerous. Even very young babies can squirm enough to fall from a table. If you use a changing table, make sure it has both guardrails and buckles. Even once your baby is securely in place, you shouldn’t leave her alone. As an alternative, you can change her on the floor on top of a changing pad, a receiving blanket, or a clean cloth diaper.

What’s the best way to put on a diaper?

Disposable diapers are extremely easy to put on. If you know how to operate tape or Velcro, you’re set. Just make sure the diaper fits your baby. If it leaves marks on baby’s waist or legs, it’s too tight. And one more thing: If you have a boy, it’s a good idea to make sure his penis is pointing down, not up. Otherwise, he can shoot pee right past the top of the diaper and onto his clothes.

Cloth diapers aren’t difficult, either, especially if you use newer versions that are contoured to fit a baby and come with Velcro straps. The straps are convenient, and you won’t have to worry about poking your baby with a pin. If you do use old-fashioned diapers, buy oversized pins with plastic safety heads. When sticking a pin through the diaper, shield your baby’s skin with your hand. If someone’s going to get poked, better you than her.

When folding the diaper, put a little extra material up front for a boy and in the back for a girl. For extra leak protection, your baby will need a diaper cover.

What can I do to prevent diaper rash?

Changing your baby promptly is the key to preventing diaper rash. The longer he sits in a wet or messy diaper, the more likely he is to get a rash. When changing, clean him well and let his skin dry before you put on another diaper. For washing his bottom, use very mild soap. If you use cloth diapers, you should wash them in mild detergent without fabric softener.

You can use zinc oxide ointments (such as Desitin) to prevent and heal rashes. Call your doctor if your baby gets a diaper rash in the first six weeks or if the rash doesn’t get better after one week of home treatment. You should also call your doctor if your baby has a fever, if he’s losing weight and isn’t eating well, if the rash spreads to other parts of the body, or if sores, pimples or bumps develop on the rash.

Diaper changing isn’t the highlight of parenthood, but it’s an important job. You’ll be doing it often, so you might as well do it right.

For more information on how to change a diaper visit our references:

Sutter Health. Cloth diapers. http://babies.sutterhealth.org/afterthebirth/newborn/nb_clothdiapers.html

Nemours Foundation. Baby Basics: Diapering Your Baby. http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/pregnancy_newborn/basics/diapering.html

University of Minnesota. Diaper choices. 2010. http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/housingandclothing/DK5911.html

Nemours Foundation. Childproofing and preventing childhood accidents. http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/home/childproof.html

American Academy of Family Physicians. Diaper Rash: Tips on preventing and treating diaper rash. Updated March 2010. http://familydoctor.org/051.xml

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. Diapering Your Baby. http://cospl.coalliance.org/fez/eserv/co:6286/ucsu2062285012004internet.pdf

Last Updated: March 11, 2015

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