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Diaper changes can be an ugly business. Even when your baby or toddler is at her most cooperative, it can be gross. And when she’s squirming, arching her back, screaming and flailing her limbs, a diaper change can get awfully messy very fast.

So what’s the most sanitary way to change a diaper? How can you make it as clean as possible and limit the spread of germs? Here are some tips.

Tips for Healthy Diaper Changes at Home

  • Choose a good location. “You always want to have a well-designated spot for diaper changes,” says Laura A. Jana, MD, a pediatrician in Omaha, Neb., and co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn. If you can confine changes to a changing table, that’s great. If you do them on the floor, try to do them in the same spot each time.

    Why? If you’re throwing down a diaper pad and doing diaper changes anywhere in the house, you could be spreading germs. If possible, set up a changing station in the bathroom -- that way you’re close to the sink.

    Where shouldn’t you do diaper changes? “Don’t do changes on the kitchen counter,” says Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, professor of pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. “You really don’t want to change a diaper in an area where people are preparing or eating food.”
  • Be prepared. Jana says you should always start a diaper change with everything you need. If you have to jump up in the middle of a diaper change to open a cabinet and grab wipes or a tube of ointment, you’re increasing the odds that you’re spreading germs around the house. So before you yank off baby’s diaper, make sure you have everything you need.
  • Wipe carefully. With a girl, always wipe from front to back to prevent infections. Although that’s not an issue with a boy, you should always put a cloth over his penis to prevent a spray of urine during the diaper change.
  • Roll up the diaper carefully. Yes, it’s not always easy -- especially if your child is shrieking and kicking you in the chin. But if you can roll up the diaper and reseal the adhesive tabs, you’ll have a ball that’s more or less germ-free on the outside, Jana says.
  • Get a diaper pail. Most people buy special diaper pails -- like the Diaper Champ, Diaper Dekor, and Diaper Genie -- because they make the house smell a little less like a latrine.

    But because of the way diaper pails are designed, they can also reduce the spread of germs. “They’re really helpful in keeping a kid’s hands away from the dirty diapers,” says Jana.
  • Use distractions. Changing a squirming baby can be a real struggle. It’s also less likely to be sanitary -- if you’re wrestling with your toddler and rushing to pull off the dirty diaper, you’re more likely to be spreading germs. So if your baby is a changing table squirmer, have distractions ready. Keep a couple of toys up on the changing table that you can use to divert her attention. Just a couple of extra seconds may be enough. Once the diaper change is over, make sure to wash off or disinfect the toys afterward.
  • Double check. During diaper changes, a baby’s flailing hands -- and especially feet -- have the unfortunate tendency to land in poop. So after he’s changed but before he’s dressed, make sure that baby’s still clean.
  • Wash off your baby’s hands. Whether or not you’ve actually seen your baby touch anything nasty during the diaper change, it’s still a good idea to wash her hands once you’re done.
  • Wash your own hands right away. If you’re not near a sink, you can use alcohol-based gel instead -- just make sure to keep the bottle out of your baby’s reach.
  • Changing cloth diapers. If you’re washing your cloth diapers yourself, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends presoaking them. Then wash them in hot water -- apart from other clothes -- and double rinse each wash.

Between diaper changes, you should also get in some good habits to reduce the spread of germs.

  • Clean and disinfect the changing area. Regularly wipe down the changing table with soap and water or a disinfectant. Clean the diaper pail as well -- inside and out.

    Be especially careful if you have more than one kid using diapers. A dirty changing area is an easy way for your two kids to swap germs.
  • Wash the diaper pad cover regularly. Changing pads and covers can get dirty quickly. Get in the habit of washing yours routinely -- and change it right away if it’s stained. If laundering the cover of your changing pad seems a hassle -- or you don’t have enough spares -- lay a receiving blanket over the pads during changes. They’re easy enough to throw in the wash.

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