Diaper Changing Dialogues

Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.

This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on November 13, 2011.

A few years ago, I was talking with my best friend from graduate school days. (Our children were infants during those years, but are now married men.)  We were pondering research and language development theories suggesting direct, face-to-face, responsive language with infants and young children is essential for optimizing these aspects of early development.

In sync, we looked at each other over our cappuccinos, paused and just laughed.  We were both imaging climbing up the stairs to our second floor grad school offices, diaper bags, briefcases, and babies in arms. When in the world do parents and caregivers of infants have quiet, focused, face-to-face time with their infants? Add a sibling into the mix, stir carefully, and you soon have the daily chaos of family life with young children.

In fact, researchers have explored just this question. It turns out that some of the most important times for early language development are built-in to the routines of caring for infants and toddlers. Here are some examples how you can optimize these routine interactions during a familiar, daily event: diapering.

One of the most frequent caregiving tasks in infancy is changing diapers. Young infants have their diapers changed eight to ten times each day.  While this repeativeness may prompt some degree of “hurry up and get this over with – we’ll be back here in two hours!” it is a moment of opportunity for intentional communication and connection.

Like feeding, young infants on a changing table tend to be at the optimal distance to focus on your face. Engage their eye contact with you before you start to change them. Talk about the world around them and what you will do next. “It is such a beautiful day outside. Do you hear that bird singing? I think we’ll go for a walk in the stroller to the park!” Sing a favorite song, especially if they are upset.

As infants become toddlers, this time is no less valuable. Optimal caregiving means focusing on the child, engaging in a conversation, and treating their small bodies with gentleness and respect. This can include a description of what you are doing or when something is a bit different. “I know this wet wipe might feel a bit cold today!” Or “It is taking a bit longer to clean up this poop; you are being such a big helper!  Let’s sing a song together while I finish up.”

This daily interchange is so important that it is a key feature of primary caregiver models in infant and toddler child care environments. In primary caregiver models, caregivers work together to make an effort to have the same person changing the infant or toddler as much as possible. It is not a single moment in the daily routine, it is part of an ongoing conversation in building a responsive adult-child relationship.

Regardless of the age, diaper changing is an intimate experience and needs to be done in a respectful manner. It is not a “running dialogue” but rather a shared experience, with give and take between you and your child built in to both your words and body language. All good conversations involve listening as well as talking. Silence, talking on the speaker phone, primarily talking to others around you, looking “over” the infant to the TV, or commenting on the unpleasantness of the task are all conveying messages that the infant or toddler receives multiple times each day. Diapering is a moment that requires intentionality on the part of the adult, and with that “slowing down to focus,” those ‘conversations’ can become some of your most precious memories.


Photo/image by: Brad Cavanagh – CanSpice / Flickr