Q: My 2-month-old cries hysterically when I dress and undress him. It makes me feel awful, but what can I do?
Don’t feel bad — many babies protest at being changed. The experience of going from feeling warm and cozy to being exposed can be very uncomfortable. Imagine what the womb must have felt like to him: warm and protected, soft and comfy. Your baby still prefers feeling like that now that he’s out in the world. It’s no wonder he loves being in a warm onesie and swaddled in a blanket. When he finds himself naked and chilly on the changing table, he lets you know he doesn’t like it one bit the only way he knows how: by crying.
Certain factors make changing especially distressing for young babies. One is that infants aren’t able to regulate their body temperature very well. When they’re undressed, the temperature drop feels dramatic, and it takes them longer to warm up once they’re clothed again.
Also, when you change your baby, all different parts of his body are being pushed and tugged as clothing is pulled over his head and up and down his arms and legs. For infants who are very sensitive to touch, the experience can be particularly uncomfortable. They show it by pulling away, arching their backs, and crying.
Be sure to plan ahead and make dressing as gentle and quick as possible. Have a clean diaper, baby wipes, and your child’s change of clothes close at hand. Consider using warm diaper wipes (you can buy a wipes warmer), or moisten paper towels or a washcloth with warm water.
When changing your child, drape a soft towel or blanket over his body to keep him warm. Or avoid getting him naked all at once: Take off the bottom part of his onesie and change his diaper while he still has the top part on. You can also try distracting him with a mobile above the changing table or by singing and talking to him while you undress him.
The most important thing you can do, however, is stay calm. When you get upset, your baby senses it in your facial expressions, your voice, and in the way you touch him as you perhaps rush to get the process over with sooner — and that will just get him more worked up. So take a deep breath, and remember: The crying is not about you. Reassure your baby by saying, “I understand you don’t like this, sweetie. I’ll just be a few more seconds. I’m putting your pajamas on now.” Even though he doesn’t understand your words yet, your soft, loving tone will send the right message.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2004.