Should I wake my baby to change their nappy?

We have all heard the saying ‘never wake a sleeping baby’, but does that unwritten rule apply to the smell of a dirty nappy in their sleep? Or when they surprise you with a longer stretch of sleep, and it’s been several hours since their last change?

It’s a dilemma all parents face at some stage. Of course, you never want to wake a sleeping baby — your baby’s precious sleep is almost as much for you as it is for them!

It’s even harder to know what to do if you’ve just spent hours (or what seems like it) feeding and settling your little one to sleep, hearing that rumble in the nappy, only to fear you’ll have to start all over again in your exhausted state.

But, no parent wants their baby to get a nappy rash either or potentially a urinary tract infection (which is more common in girls). When a baby has a wet or dirty nappy on for too long, the moisture and ammonia irritates their sensitive skin. Nappy rashes can cause discomfort resulting in an unsettled bub who will possibly wake even more.

So, should I wake my baby to change their nappy?

The answer to this is: it depends. Only you are the expert on your baby, so what do your mumma instincts tell you?

Here are some considerations to help you decide if you’re unsure:

  • Is your baby napping or sleeping during the night?
  • Is your baby unwell? Are they teething?
  • Does it smell like a runny or sour poo?
  • Do they already have a nappy rash, even a mild one?
  • For newborns, has it been longer than 2-3 hours since their last change?

Naptime nappies: to change or not to change?

If your baby is well, and they’re typically going to wake in the next 15 minutes or so, then it shouldn’t cause any serious issues to leave them to sleep.

If your baby is sick, teething (which is when some babies get runny poo), or the waft from the nappy is sour or you suspect diarrhoea, then you will need to wake your baby to change them straight away. You could try to resettle them back to sleep afterwards.

If your baby already has a nappy rash, or is prone to them, you will need to change them immediately.

Night nappies: to change or not to change?

For a poo during the night, you will need to change them as soon as you smell it, even if you just got them to sleep or they’ve woken up several times already. As hard as it may be!

If you have a newborn baby, and it’s been more than a few hours since their last nappy change (which can happen, especially if they fall asleep during their bedtime feed and you don’t want to wake them), then you may need to change them even if their nappy is just wet.

Use your judgement here from previous overnight nappy changes, as often urine alone won’t cause problems. Besides, they’ll probably wake for a feed very soon, and you can check their nappy and change them then.

To further prevent nappy rash during sleep

For naps, it’s sometimes better to let them have that little extra sleep than to wake them. To help avoid a rash from developing during these times, you can do the following:

  • Change their nappy and apply a barrier cream before each nap.
  • As soon as they wake, use gentle water-based wipes or cotton wool with water to clean the area.
  • Pat dry the area with a clean cloth.
  • If they don’t want to feed straight away, give them some nappy-free time, even if it’s only five minutes.

Tips to change your baby’s nappy without waking them

It’s sometimes possible, particularly when it comes to newborns, to change them without waking them. It’s not easy, but it can be done!

  • Be sure that your baby is in a deeper sleep state. You can test this by lifting a limb, and if it’s heavy and drops back down, they’ve probably moved into deep sleep. You’ll know also if their breathing is softer.
  • Try to only use dim night lights, and even better if they’re a non-stimulating red-based light.
  • Using a white noise machine can help to drown out any noises you make.
  • If you share a room with them, rather than moving your baby to the change table, you might find that putting a towel on your warm soft bed might be less startling.
  • Try not to talk to your baby or move them too quickly.
  • Use warm water to clean them, or warm up the wipes in your clean hands. Another good idea could be to keep a change of their clothes in bed with you, so that they’re not only warm if you have to fully change their clothes, but they’ll have your scent on them.