Should you wake your sleeping baby for a diaper change?

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“Am I bad person if I don’t change my baby’s diaper at 3 a.m.?” asks basically every new parent everywhere at some point during the first few weeks with a newborn. The answer might seem obvious to some, but wondering whether nighttime diaper changes are necessary isn’t a stupid question.

“I hear it all the time,” says Kathleen Mochoruk, a registered nurse and lactation consultant who teaches baby-care classes through her company, Baby Prep Prenatal Sessions, in Vancouver. You’ve probably been taught that you should change the baby after every feed. And if your infant seems uncomfortable, of course you’ll do a quick diaper change. But what about when they’re snoozing peacefully through a series of sleepy nighttime feeds? Should you fret about a potentially wet diaper in the middle of the night?

“I suppose my biggest worry was diaper rash or the diaper leaking,” says Ainsley MacIsaac, a new mom in Halifax who found herself wondering about the best time to change her baby. No parent wants to inadvertently leave their little one lying in poop too long—a missed change might result in a raging rash on baby’s bottom. And potential pee overflows could wake them, too—but so could a diaper change with startlingly cold wipes on a bare bum.

Cloth vs. disposable diapers: Find out which will work best for your family“There are very few circumstances where I’d recommend waking a sleeping baby to change their diaper,” says Mochoruk. Unless your baby has an open sore or serious diaper rash that requires monitoring, let them sleep, she says. You really needn’t worry about a bit of pee in the diaper. “Baby urine is not very concentrated, so it’s only going to bother them if they don’t like the feeling of being wet.”

Waking due to wetness is typically only an issue if they’re in cloth diapers, which don’t wick away moisture the way modern disposables do. That’s why even some fans of cloth diapers forgo them at nighttime.

Montreal mom Rona Nadler switches to disposables in the evening. “If we use cloth at night, we have to change her whole outfit, and possibly the bed, at least once,” she says.

Routinely applying a barrier cream at night can be another way of protecting your baby’s bottom when there may be longer stretches between changes. “Most new moms and dads don’t put on enough,” says Mochoruk. “You have to be very generous with the ointment, otherwise it’s not creating a barrier to protect from urine and feces.”

You can also act pre-emptively by getting into the habit of changing your baby before a feed. That way you know they’re going back to sleep with a (relatively) dry diaper, and you won’t risk waking them up if they tend to nod off while they nurse.

If you do hear—or smell—a poop, you’ll want to change them soon, but not necessarily immediately. A breastfed baby’s poop isn’t very irritating to the skin, so if they are sleeping soundly and you think they’re going to be up soon anyway, you can safely put it off for a little while, says Mochoruk. A formula-fed baby, on the other hand, will require more prompt changing, since their poop is more likely to cause diaper rash or be aggravating to newborn skin. If you’re lucky, they’ll wake up on their own, though. “Many newborns will wake naturally when they poo,” she says.

If baby’s still snoozing, you might be able to get them cleaned up without totally rousing them. Keep the lights low and the room quiet, and move slowly and calmly. If you can skip the trip down the hall to the nursery change table, that could help, too.

“It’s definitely better to change the baby in our room at night, on our bed in the dark,” says Nadler.

MacIsaac agrees: “I keep wipes, an extra diaper and a receiving blanket beside the bed.”

Some sleep sack designs and pyjamas lend themselves to stealthy night changes (though a swaddled baby is a bit trickier to unwrap without waking). “I prefer the zip-up footie PJs because it’s faster to get her done up again,” MacIsaac says.

As your baby grows out of the newborn stage, the rhythm of sleep and diapering will change and so will your anxiety about it. In the early days and weeks, Nadler says they’d change now six-month-old Eva every time they saw the telltale little blue line on her diaper, but that didn’t last long. “I think we gradually became more relaxed about changing her diaper in the middle of the night, and at some point it became a goal to not have to change it at all,” she says.

It’s inevitable that you’ll have nights during the first few months where you’ll miss a diaper or two. “There’s no point in feeling guilty about it,” says Mochoruk. It won’t harm your baby if they have to wait a bit longer for a change, even if it turns out to be a poop. Don’t torture yourself about it—it really is OK to wait. 

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