Washing dishes, changing diapers…

‘There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first way is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second way is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.’ (Thich Nhat Hanh)

An infant can have his diaper changed about six or seven thousand times during his lifetime, claims Magda Gerber, and asks: ‘Why don’t we do it nicely? Why don’t we make it a learning experience? Why don’t we want a child to enjoy being diapered?’. Diapering takes up a lot of time in the beginning, along with feeding and sleeping. In fact, that’s what we seem to spend a majority of time doing – changing, feeding, changing, feeding, and changing again…

Respectful beginnings

I remember the first ever diaper change at home. We had no idea what we were doing – it was one of those things we hadn’t really thought about (along a long list of just about everything else past the birth itself). We had watched the nurses change Antek in the hospital, and while it looked quite impressive for speed, the whole process was rather objectifying. Once our little guy was diapered, all we could think of was ‘What just happened?’. So we had him at home, on our bed, wet and unhappy, needing to be changed. Barely even 24 hours on this planet. We were scared to death that we would break his arm or leg, or that something – though we were not quite sure what exactly – would go terribly wrong. The Diaper Change Disaster went on, we were trying to change him, we put the diaper on all wrong, he peed and it went all over the place. We had to change him again. If anyone had filmed us, it would have been great for some slapstick comedy. But there was one thing that truly amazed us – once we started (and believe me, the whole disaster lasted for ever, with diapers changed about three times, one after another), Antek calmed down, and was calmly patient until the end. We talked to him, we explained what was going on, probably more for our own benefit than his. But it worked. Either he felt we were really trying to work it out together, or he had just realized that it might be a really long night. (Anna)

The amazing thing about a diaper change is that it is full of opportunities for interaction – we have to be there, we have to be present, and so does our baby. There is no other way around it. If we see it as an opportunity and a ‘learning experience’, it is bound to become one. For the experience to be respectful, though, we need to be fully present and everyone needs to be involved on their own terms, at their own pace. It’s not always easy, it’s not always straightforward, and sometimes we wished we didn’t have to do it at all. But in all honesty – our kids probably have felt the same way too. More than once.

A good starting point

Since diapering is something we have to do right from the beginning, it seems especially important to set a tone and know how we want to do it. ‘Cooperation in diapering is especially helpful because children go through periods where they don’t like being diapered and they resist it.’ (Magda Gerber) If we decide from the beginning on setting a cooperative tone during diaper changes, chances are they will remain cooperative throughout. Sometimes babies will tease, and toddlers will test – but if we have developed our own way of changing a diaper, one that involves the child, it will help us through the teasing and testing. So it really is a good investment for all of us for the future.

But the diaper change begins before we have our baby on the changing table. Way before we undress him. Respectful diaper changing starts the minute we realize that our baby needs to be changed. May it be because he is uncomfortable or because we have an appointment and want to change him before we leave the house – especially in the beginning it’s our call and we carefully have to pick the moment when we let the child know what’s about to happen.

Often we realize (or, yes – smell) that it’s time for some changing. This is in our mind and we are aware of it. The child, however, might not necessarily feel that way. He might be busy playing or observing the world around him. He might be so engaged that the wet diaper is not bothering him. Yet. That’s why we don’t just go over and pick him up. No matter how important this diaper change seems to us – we have to let the child know. This is not just a respectful way of telling a baby what is going to happen. It is the first step to cooperation.

A baby that has just been playing happily, was then suddenly lifted in the air, carried through the flat and placed onto a table where the minute he realized where he is his body gets liftet and rolled and clothes taken off will not just not want to cooperate, he won’t be capable. Because by the time he realizes what’s going on he is already half naked.

This can mean that we patiently wait for the child to „finish” his play and then let him know what is going to happen: „You have been really busy discovering your hands. I’ve seen that. I would like to change your diaper now before you will have another nap. So I’m going to pick you up and take you to the changing table.”

If we don’t seem to find this moment but have to be somewhere at a certain time we can quietly step in and let the child know without completely interrupting him: „I see you are really busy with that blanket. It seems to fascinate you. I have just checked the time and we need to get ready to go to the doctor’s. I will come and pick you up in a minute.”

And this is what we do. Come back in a minute. It’s not just the child’s play we should NOT interrupt unless it’s an emergency. It’s also cooperation we are kindly allowing by being respectful in the first place.

Cooperation and staying involved

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” (Benjamin Franklin).

Even the smallest babies can be trusted to cooperate. No, they will not put the diaper on, they won’t hold a towel, they won’t even lift their bottom in the beginning. But if we know what to expect, we might soon realize that they do cooperate in any way they can at a given age.

As soon as a baby has that much control over his limbs that he can move his arms and legs on purpose, he will be happy to help you put his shirt or trousers on. You will notice that he desperately wants to do everything himself as soon as he can (or even a little earlier). You might be surprised if suddenly you say (as usual) „Ok now I‘ll put your right arm into this shirt“ and he will lift his arm just like that. Especially in the beginning babies are so happy that they know what‘s going on and that they can help, they just do it. Only later they refuse to do it – which doesn‘t necessarily have to be a sign of a fight or rejection. It can be play but more on that later in this article.

Respect and the body

‘Diaper changes are built for intimacy’ (Janet Lansbury). Can you think of a more intimate situation that this with your infant? Can you think of a situation when he is more vulnerale than during a diaper change? Respect is especially important in those moments, because it can leave a lasting impression.

One important thing to remember is that babies don’t really choose to make anyone around uncomfortable by having a dirty diaper. It’s normal. It’s natural. And while we no longer wear diapers, we still go to the toilet and do pretty much the same thing. Ok, now that it’s out in the open that we all do it (and that while it’s not always pleasant to change a diaper, it is also not always pleasant to walk into a toilet after somebody else, and yet we don’t comment on that in public…), we can talk about it respectfully J

The way we handle diaper situations from the beginning, sets the tone for how our children will think about their bodies and bodily functions in the future. If we can pay little or no attention to the smelliness and the mess, but rather focus on building a relationship during this process, our kids are likely to think about their own bodies in a more healthy and respectful way. It is not only unkind, it’s also unfair to make children ashamed of a healthy functioning of their body – we can bet if they could choose, they would not want their diapers to be smelly either (wouldn’t we all want our toliets to smell like roses?).

We all want our children to be pleased with the way they look, not to be ashamed of their bodies – part of this success lies on our diapering table.

A learning experience

What kinds of things can babies learn during a diaper change?

  • The importance of knowing their own body, and knowing they have the ownership of it (if we ask babies to participate, tell them when and where we will touch them and wait for a sign that they are ready, if we involve rather than distract)
  • That they are important and worthy of our attention (if we ‘wash the dishes to wash the dishes’ rather than rushing through the process quickly to get it over with)
  • That they are capable (if we ask them to cooperate and give them time to do so, if we allow them to help, if we involve them in the process rather than distracting them with a toy)
  • That there is nothing shameful about their bodies and any bodily function – that it is normal and we all do it
  • Lots and lots of language – it has been shown numerous times, that children remember words that they find useful much more quickly (if we talk and explain what is going on – much more effective than any flashcards!)
  • How to cooperate with someone to achieve something together (if we ask them to, and wait and wait… and give them a chance to actively participate in the process, even though sometimes it might take longer)

Fun and clarity

In the beginning it might seem like a lot of talking to our newborn. But the benefits of it are great. Not only does the baby hear our voice and feel a bit more secure, he will learn the meaning of what we are saying and learn to anticipate what is coming next. Even if he does not understand every word of it, he knows the sound of the sentences. This is then something he can focus on. ,What is s/he doing now? Ah ok so this will come next.‘

As mentioned before – smiling at you on the changing table, laughing and „not fighting“ are first signs of cooperation. These signs show you that the baby is not annoyed by what is coming up, but instead knows that he will be spending some quality time with mom or dad now.

If we then talk to our baby, not only about what we are doing but also about what he is doing „You are grabbing my hair. Yes, that‘s my hair. How does it feel?“ the fun gets even better. Because fun is allowed. Smile. Laugh with him. And respond to his play. Because if your baby rolls over all the time, gives you the „wrong“ arm or leg – this is not always fighting or rejecting. It can be play. If a child has experienced respectful diaper changes while mom is completely focused, not rushed, with no phone interruptions or household – he will try and stretch those treasure times. By playing with us. Asking for our undivided attention just a little longer. Lets go with it. For a while.

But if we then do drift off the „plan“ and respond to the baby „Hey you just turned around when I wanted to take your diaper off“ we should stay clear and let him know what our expectations are. „Ok you want to roll over again, that‘s fine and I can see you are enjoying it, but then I want to take off your diaper.“

The child always needs to know what we want. Don‘t play with him if you are actually busy. Don‘t let a diaper change become only play. It‘s still a diaper  change. It‘s still a „thing to be done“ rather than a game we play whenever we feel like it. Something to look forward to.


„Every child is different. Every day.“ (Lienhard Valentin)

But it‘s not only children who are individuals and so completely different from each other. It‘s us too. A diaper change is therefore a wonderful way for a child to experience those various personalities. Dad might be having troubles with all the buttons and might not remember where things go after mom has rearranged the changing area for the 5th time. But he still cares, takes his time, talks. Just differently.

I remember one evening when I was hiding behind the door while my husband was changing Leander‘s diaper. It was during the first weeks. I have been home alone during the days and slowly found my routine and now I was curious how my husband was doing things with our little man. 

I found that he was a bit fast and not talking enough (for my expectations). I was just about to step in and tell him to slow down, to explain more and… when I stopped and thought: „This is their way. They will get together on their own terms. It will all be good.“ Then I left and never hovered behind doors again. 

A few months back – Leander was about 1 1/2 – my husband said to me in the evening: „You know it‘s actually quite amazing. You just have to slow down, give him time and in the end it‘s him who does the things he refused to do a few minutes ago. Without fighting or anything.“ They have found their way. And when I hear Leander singing from his room after they went off together to change his diaper I know – they are having fun together. (Nadine)

Patience is not something we have from the very beginning (well, those of you who do – lucky you and we are officially jealous). We grow it along the way. Just as we grow. As persons.

A diaper change is the possibility to meet with no interruptions. And grow together. So, do you remember the first time you changed your baby? What was it like?

Can’t wait to hear from You!


More reading:

“How to love a diaper change” Janet Lansbury

“Changing Perceptions on changing diapers” Lisa Sunbury

11 thoughts on “Washing dishes, changing diapers…

  1. Just what I needed to read. With a hovering 4yearold and a very mobile 9 month old I have been stressed during diaper changes. Baby loves to roll over and hates being on his back. We’ve really been working on standing up diaper changes. I think giving a notice before is something that will really help and maybe even having him crawl onto the changing pad or at least into his room. Any ideas to involve my 4 year old who gets jealous during time with baby? Thanks for the great post!

    • Hi Rachel,
      thanks for joining our site! Oh yes – 9 months are that age where they become mobile and simply don’t want to lie on their backs peacefully. Allowing him to be changed standing up is a way of respecting his developmental needs. It’s a bit of a fuzz at first but with a bit of training I found it quite easy. It is always a good option to ask “Do you want me to carry you over to the changing table/pad or do you want to go/crawl yourself?” And even if he starts playing hide and seek on the way (what my son did) I just went for it for a little while always having in mind what I was actually after – a changed diaper.
      In terms of your 4 year old I would suggest you first ask if (s)he wants to help during diaper changes (but also ask your baby if it’s ok for him that his brother/sister is joining in). Sometimes they want to help for the sake of being with us and not because they actually want to help out. So if we then give them “orders” we set expectations they feel like they need to meet which is not the way we want to go with our jealous child if you know what I mean. So asking is the first step – and accepting an occasional “No.”
      Otherwise – Is there any chance of offering him/her some quality mama-time after the diaper changes or anytime during the day? This way (s)he might not feel left out completely but can always focus on this special time. Maybe bath time or evening ritual – anything that involves just the two of you and is consistent so (s)he can rely on.
      Hope this was a bit helpful and All the best !

  2. Thank you for another informative website. Where else could I get that kind of info written in such an ideal manner? I’ve a mission that I’m just now operating on, and I’ve been on the glance out for such information.

  3. I don’t even know the way I finished up here, however I believed this put up used to be great. I don’t know who you are but definitely you are going to a well-known blogger for those who are not already. Cheers!

  4. Pingback: Watch Your Potty Mouth | Janet Lansbury

  5. Pingback: (Free) play and (free) movement – How does it happen? | Mamas in the Making

  6. Pingback: Changing relationships through changing diapers. | Mamas in the Making

  7. Pingback: RIE Parenting Basics (9 Ways to Put Respect into Action) | Janet Lansbury

  8. Pingback: Showing Trust and Respect – even for the newest of humans | a la @janetlansbury | What Works

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>