While the frequent (sometimes hourly) diaper changes may not be your favorite part of the parent job, they're still part of the baby care package. And it's important for baby, too, since changing a diaper whenever it's wet or messy helps prevent irritation and diaper rash.

Here's everything new parents need to know about changing baby's diapers, including how to make the process as easy as possible.

Diapering essentials to have on hand

Before you get started, be sure you have the following diapering essentials nearby:

  • Clean diapers. It's always good to have a couple of spares handy when you're changing diapers.
  • Clean cotton balls, washcloths or wipes. For newborns under 1 month old and those with diaper rash, use warm water and a cotton ball to clean baby off and a washcloth for drying (you can also try using hypoallergenic wipes for newborns without diaper rash to start, if you prefer). For older infants, use pre-moistened wipes; look for those that are hypoallergenic and free of fragrance and alcohol.
  • A change of clothes for baby. You might need one if the diaper has leaked (it happens!).
  • Clean diaper wraps or waterproof pants. If you're using cloth diapers, you'll want these on hand.
  • Ointment to prevent and/or soothe diaper rash. If baby has diaper rash, it creates a barrier between that tender bottom and skin-irritating poop and pee. No need for lotions, baby oil or powder. Remember, though, that you can't use many diaper rash creams and ointments with cloth diapers.
  • A loving touch. Your gentle voice (talking or singing) and touch can make diaper changes easier on your baby — and easier on you, too.
  • A distraction. Keep a favorite toy visible and even a music box or mechanical toy for distraction, especially if you've got a squirmy baby.

Once you've got everything you need ready to go, wash and dry your hands. If that's not possible, give them a good swipe with a diaper wipe.

How to tell a wet diaper from a dry diaper

With a newborn, you'll probably know when your baby poops by the grunts and grimaces that clue you in; otherwise you'll get a whiff soon after your little one is finished.

You'll know your baby peed with a disposable diaper often by the liquid-sensitive, color-changing stripe on it and with a cloth diaper that's wet to the touch. If you still can't tell, a quick feel of the diaper or look inside it will do the trick.

If baby is sleeping, there's no need to wake him for a diaper change. Unless your newborn is very wet and uncomfortable or has a poopy diaper, you don't need to put a new one on during nighttime feedings, either, especially if it will interfere with going back to sleep.

How to change a baby's diaper

With a newborn, the basic moves of changing diapers remain the same whether you're using cloth or disposable diapers.

Step 1: Place your baby on a clean, soft, safe surface

A changing table, a dresser equipped with a changing pad, a crib or a bed (preferably protected with a towel or waterproof pad) all work. Spread a protective cloth on the surface if you're anywhere but your own changing table.

No matter where you're changing diapers, make sure to keep one hand on the baby at all times, even before your little one has started rolling over. Strapped-in babies also should remain with arm's reach.

Step 2: Open up the diaper and clean your baby

Unfasten the diaper and survey the scene, then follow the same basic rules for both boys and girls:

  • For a wet diaper: Fold the dirty diaper underneath the baby (so the clean, outer side is now under his or her bottom) and wipe the area.
  • For a poopy diaper: Wipe as much as possible with the diaper itself, then fold it underneath, as above. Lift the legs and clean baby's front well with warm water or wipes, being sure to get into all the creases. Then lift both legs and clean baby's bottom thoroughly.

Once baby's diaper area is clean, slip the soiled diaper out and put a fresh one under baby before releasing baby's legs. Pat baby dry before putting on the clean diaper or any diaper rash creams.

If the umbilical cord is still attached and you aren't using special newborn diapers, fold the diaper down to expose the area to air and avoid getting it wet. Fasten it tightly to avoid leaks, but not so tightly that irritation occurs (you'll notice the telltale red marks during the next diaper change).

For disposables, the tabs go in the back, underneath baby, and then wrap around to front.

A few more tips to follow when changing baby's diaper:

  • Girls need to be wiped from front to back, to avoid getting poop in the vaginal area. There is no need to open the labia and clean inside (even if you see a white discharge).
  • Boys may offer an unwanted surprise in the form of a fountain of pee, so keep his penis covered with a clean diaper or cloth whenever he's undressed. Expect erections sometimes (they're perfectly normal), and don't be afraid of gently cleaning around the penis and scrotum. When you do put his new diaper on, point his penis down to minimize leaks (and soaked shirts).

Step 3: Throw out the dirty diaper

For disposables, wrap the diaper into a ball, using the tab fasteners to secure. Then throw away in your diaper pail, plastic bag or trash can (but never flush down the toilet).

When you're away from home, carry a stash of plastic bags. Place the dirty diaper inside and tie the bag before tossing it into the trash. Put cloth diapers into a bucket with a tight-fitting lid ,or a vinyl bag if you're out, until laundry day.

Step 4: Dress baby

Now that you're done, change baby's clothes and/or sheets as needed (and it will probably be needed, quite often!) or re-dress him.

Step 5: Wash your hands again

Finish by washing your hands again (use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren't available).

Is it safe to use baby powder and diaper creams?

As a rule of thumb, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents avoid using baby powder made with either talc or cornstarch during diaper changes or bathtime.

That's partly because babies don't really need it and powder can irritate their already-sensitive skin, and partly because if a lot of powder is inhaled, it can be harmful to little ones.

You also don't really need baby lotion, baby oil or other creams when you're changing baby's diaper, unless your baby has a diaper rash

In that case, you should use a barrier ointment (plain old petroleum jelly often works, or a zinc oxide cream) if your baby is in disposable diapers. Diaper ointments are generally not compatible with cloth diapers, so check with your pediatrician about what to do in that case.

Be sure to give baby's bottom at least a couple of minutes to dry before applying the cream and diapering up. If the rash isn't gone in two to three days, see your baby's pediatrician.