Nappy changing: A valuable opportunity to connect

Published on Tuesday, 23 February 2021
Last updated on Monday, 22 February 2021

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We know from research and experience that routines play a key role in the wellbeing and development of a child. Nappy changes are an important part of the daily routine of a child, however, the focus on health and hygiene and the everyday nature of this activity often eclipse the enormous potential this precious one-on-one time provides for babies and toddlers to connect with and learn from their carer.  

On average there are 5,000 nappy changes in the first three years of a child’s life, and typically this routine is completed quickly, taking on average less than three minutes.

One of the clearest findings from brain science has shown early brain development is directly influenced by babies’ day-to-day interactions with their caregivers. A baby’s early experiences in relationships, whether at home or in an early education environment, set the stage for future brain functioning.

During a child’s early years, the brain grows rapidly, with neurons forming new connections at the astounding rate of 700-1000 per second in the first few years of life. Therefore, the cumulative experience of nappy changing is not an inconsequential activity.

As babies experience responses from their caregivers, their brains start to form expectations about how they will be treated and how they should respond. When those experiences are primarily positive, children perceive the behaviours and messages of others in positive ways and are motivated to explore more of their world.

An unhurried approach, sensitivity and an educator’s mindful attention during a nappy change sends a powerful message to the child about his or her body, bodily functions and the relationship between the carer and the child. While adhering to health, hygiene and safety requirements through written policies and practices is essential, this routine needs to also include affection, responsiveness, encouragement and teaching.

By taking the time to reflect on your approach you can ensure your practice doesn’t miss the opportunity for moment-to-moment interactions during the nappy change routine. By participating with babies to create fun, positive and meaningful connections, educators can think carefully about responding to individual children’s cues and needs in that moment.

Reconceptualising the nappy change routine as a mindful learning opportunity and a situation for reciprocal engagement can deliver positive outcomes and may:

  • Highlight opportunities to build close and respectful relationships
  • Promote back-and-forth interactions between the child and educator
  • Support connectedness and a strong sense of identity
  • Support wellbeing and a sense of belonging
  • Enhance involvement of the child
  • Encourage children’s independence and autonomy
  • Accommodate the slower pace young children require for absorbing and processing information and communication

In a 2018 article on re-envisaging nappy changing routines, Deborah Laurin, Assistant Professor at Eastern Michigan University, framed a nappy change interaction between a caregiver and a young child using the behavioural constructs of affection, responsiveness, encouragement and teaching.

Here is a brief description of each area to help re-envision nappy changing as an opportunity to enhance the quality of a child’s experience:

  • Affection

Caregiver behaviours that convey warmth, positive regard, and a fondness for the child. Research indicates caregivers’ demonstrating warmth, enjoyment, and physical contact positively influences a child’s wellbeing, cooperation, and positive child behaviour.

  • Responsiveness

Defines how well the caregiver attends to a child’s cues, emotions, words, interests, and behaviours. For example, do caregivers change pace and activities to meet the child’s interests or needs, or follow what the child is trying to do, and respond to the child’s words or sounds? Timely, responsive caregiving is a strong predictor of attachment security and is associated with language and cognitive outcomes.

  • Encouragement

Encompasses how well a caregiver supports a child’s initiatives, choices, independence, and creativity. For example, waiting for a child’s response after making a suggestion and supporting exploration, effort, skills, and child curiosity are positively associated with child behaviours, well-being, and cooperation.

  • Teaching

Cognitive stimulation, providing explanations, initiating conversations, joint attention, and shared play. The caregiver should talk about the environment, ask questions, respond to the child’s vocalisations, explain reasons for actions to the child, and label objects or actions. Caregiver teaching behaviour is an important element of language and cognitive development for infants and toddlers.

According to Deborah Laurin, responding to a child with encouragement actively supports the child’s exploration, initiative and curiosity. She describes caregivers who are responsive as, “those who are paying attention to the child’s interests, changing pace to meet the child’s needs and showing understanding or acceptance of a child’s emotions, and the child’s use of words or sounds to communicate.”

For young children it is often the ordinary moments where the most significant learning can take place.

Activities to support children during nappy changes can include:

  • Explaining what you’re doing and inviting participation and cooperation – this provides opportunities to grow a child’s vocabulary and language skills.
  • Promoting movement such as asking them to lie down or sit up – this encourages their physical skills as they learn to lift their bottoms, legs and move themselves on a change mat.
  • Being fully present and keeping the child involved in the interaction and responding to their cues.
  • Ensuring you maintain a positive attitude and a friendly tone of voice to respond and drive strong social interaction, which will directly affect the child’s experience.
  • Encouraging a high-quality back and forth interaction will support optimal healthy development and value the child
  • Having some fun, there’s nothing more beneficial than a giggle!

References and further reading

Ministry of Education: Nappy changing procedure

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