Tips &

Tips &

Should babies give their consent before we change their nappies?

May 2018
Janthea Brigden
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I confess I was somewhat bewildered by all the fuss after the interview on ITV’s “This Morning” last week. Piers Morgan was interviewing the author and anxiety expert, Jane Evans about the concept of babies being able to tell their parents and carers whether they approved of having their nappies changed.  

Despite being a father of four children of his own, Mr Morgan acted as though this was a new – and totally ridiculous – concept. As a childcare professional with 25 years of relevant experience I can certainly confirm that the concept has been around for a long time and is far from ridiculous! It is perfectly normal to ask a baby if they mind before changing a nappy – many parents do it automatically:

“I think that nappy needs changing, don’t you?” – “Goodness you feel wet – shall I give you a clean nappy?”

For childcare professionals this common practice is endorsed by Ofsted, whose Early Years inspectors look for respectfully delivered intimate care, with social interaction and conversation going on all the way through a nappy change. What Jane Evans advocates –rightly in my opinion – goes a step further.

Jane wants us to wait for the non-verbal consent that a baby is able to give. I felt that Piers Morgan was being deliberately provocative, playing up to the audience by being scathing about any possibility that a baby could give consent in the way that Jane demonstrated on-screen when she relaxed her shoulders. Any parent in tune with their baby knows the signals their child gives when unhappy about something, be it food, changing or going to sleep. For a childcare professional who may not know your child as well as you do, it’s even more important that they ask and make sure that they have a consent signal before removing a baby’s nappy and providing what is, after all, the most intimate of care.

The first three months of life – the fourth trimester – are hugely impactful on a human being – indeed it is entirely possible for this time to affect how we turn out as a mature adult.

Unlike most other animals, we are born unable to walk, or run from danger. In order to survive a human baby is reliant on its carers. As infants we have to work out who we can trust and who we can’t. Our early instincts are finally tuned to everything that is around us and we are learning and absorbing at a fascinating rate.

If you hand your baby to someone and they immediately start to cry, it’s probably because the vibes that that person is unconsciously giving off, feel threatening to the baby. Most Mums will know that if they are feeling anxious, their baby won’t settle. There’s then that moment when a partner walks in, takes the baby and they instantly stop crying! The same happens with childcare professionals. Often one person will be struggling to sooth a baby and someone else with a different body energy will take over and instantly reassure the child. 

When it comes to nappy changing, to be scooped up and have your clothes stripped off without any conversation or warning is extremely frightening, whatever your age. A baby can smell and remember the feel of its’ own parents, so it will normally relax quite quickly. If a childcare professional did this, it could traumatise the baby and raise their stress levels.

There is a great deal of research about how stress levels in the early months can alter and change the way the human brain develops. Studies into attachment disorder and radical attachment disorder have shown that in seriously traumatised babies, the brain does not develop in the same way as other babies and, in fact, holes are left. I’m not suggesting that by not asking a baby if it’s ok to change their nappy is going to damage their brain, but I am certain that the more content and relaxed a baby is in that first few months, the more likely they are to carry on that way through life.

At Nipperbout, if a baby clearly doesn’t want a nappy change, we leave it a while and hold and talk to the baby until they become more relaxed and trusting. As a parent if I wait and listen to my child, I’m displaying respect and consideration and the child is more likely to do the same at a later age. Of course nappies have to be changed – waiting too long could result in nappy rash. However I guarantee that waiting only has to be done for a very short while before the baby will trust and relax.  (Sometimes they are shouting because they want you to get on with the job and help them feel more comfortable!)

Piers Morgan’s claim that a baby can’t tell you if they don’t want their nappy changed is simply not true. Babies constantly communicate non-verbally – most parents will confirm this. Anyone who is signing with their baby knows that a baby can start to converse with one or two hand signals from as young as three months and by 9 months a whole conversation can be going on. This proves that all those gestures, shoulder relaxes or tensions do actually mean something.

Getting into tune with a baby I’ve never met before might take longer with working out their particular signals, but asking questions will help me to learn how the baby communicates. This is why it is even more important to talk and listen to their body language. Communication is only 40 percent verbal – the remaining 60 percent is body language. Think about how we communicate with people whose language we don’t speak – somehow we manage to make ourselves understood and we certainly know if someone is angry or upset! There are many excellent books on non verbal communication – Paul C Holinger’s “What babies say before they can talk” is one which gives great insight into the expressions and movements which babies make to express their feelings. “Your Baby is Speaking to You” by Kevin Nugent is another.

On “This Morning” Jane Evans made the point that asking consent before changing a nappy or taking down a toddlers pants to sit them on a potty will help children to realise that their permission is required before this kind of intimate care happens. It is this awareness which could protect them later in life from potential abusers. There may be those who will scoff ,but having attended many safeguarding conferences and lectures I think this is a valid point. If we can develop a sense of awareness in our children, surely doing so can only be a positive thing.

The key point in all this for me is that we as adults need to be doing as much as possible to reduce stress and anxiety in our children. Research proves that bursts of anxiety and fear produce adrenalin surges which can be harmful to our wellbeing and mental health. With one in five teenagers currently suffering from mental health issues along with many children under five years old, surely asking before changing a nappy, before tickling and yes even before hugging and kissing is a small thing to do if it produces calm, relaxed, happier children…