toddler wearing diaper and playing on the couch
profile picture of Katherine Martinelli
Katherine Martinelli

Strategies for Changing a Squirmy Toddler's Diaper

When your toddler starts resisting diaper changes, getting them clean can be a serious struggle. Here, experts and parents offer up their best tried-and-true tips.

When your sweet baby is an infant, diaper changes can be a serene time of bonding (barring the occasional, er, misfire). But as your little one transforms into an inquisitive, mobile toddler, suddenly asking them to stay still can be challenging to say the least. A toddler diaper change can become one of the great—and sometimes comical—struggles of the day as they wiggle, resist, scream, twist and run off.

If your toddler hates diaper changes, you’re definitely not alone. While there are some battles that aren’t worth fighting, it’s not like you can let your child remain in a dirty diaper all day. So what’s a parent of a squirmy toddler to do?

At this age you can no longer just tell your child what to do and expect compliance. “With toddlers, it is all about giving them a reason to cooperate—meeting them more than halfway,” says Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician, author of Happiest Toddler on the Block and creator of the SNOO Smart Sleeper.

So how do we do that? Here, professional experts and parents weigh in on effective strategies for how to change a toddler’s diaper, stress-free.

Strategy #1: Distraction

When it comes to finagling a successful toddler diaper change, one of the first things to try is getting your child to focus on something else. “Distract your toddler during the diaper change,” advises Reshmi Basu, MD, a pediatrician at CHOC Children’s pediatric healthcare network in California. “This could be with a favorite toy or book or by singing a song. You could have a special toy that they get only at diaper changes. A sibling can also help entertain them as a distraction.”

Karp agrees with this strategy. “You might use special dynamic or kinetic toys only used on the changing table—a slinky is a good one—or music or treats that your toddler can have when you lay them down. Sometimes even running a loud hair dryer can get them settled down for 30 seconds.”

Parents who’ve put this strategy to the test vouch for it. David C. says, “For us, no toy was distracting enough, but a board book usually did the trick.” Emily P. relied on technology. “I know this is terrible, but we kept an old iPad next to the changing table and would show her (vaguely educational) videos during diaper changes.” If your toddler hates diaper changes, try livening things up with goofy antics. “Singing and really, really silly dancing” works for Hannah G.

Of course, nothing quite beats an older sibling when it comes to the power of distraction. “If they have an older sibling, let them play with your toddler while you change them,” Dawn A. recommends. “It keeps the older child (even if they aren’t that much older) occupied so they aren’t bothering you and also keeps your toddler busy. There’s no better ‘toy’ than a sibling.”

Kate W. relies on a similar tactic: “I call older siblings over and tell them to make faces to keep my kiddo entertained long enough to get the diaper at least part way on. He’s gonna tuck and roll, so I try to have one side done ant then kind of wrap the other one around him as he rolls. If I can get him flat once it’s on, I adjust the tabs to even things out.”

Strategy #2: Empowerment

As toddlers become increasingly independent, they’re all about doing things themselves. When it comes to toddler diaper changes, rather than fighting them, empower them. “Have your toddler be involved in the diaper changing process. They can go get the diaper for you or hand you wipes,” Basu suggests. “Explain to your toddler what you’re going to be doing. Talk through the process and explain that this won’t take long. Let them know that as soon as their diaper is changed, they get to do X,Y and Z, which can be something they want to do, like taking a walk.”

Laura S. used a similar strategy with her child. “It sometimes worked if I asked her to make choices (which nappy she wanted) or to help me—asking her which way round the nappy was supposed to go or if she could help me stick the tabs on properly.”

Strategy #3: Switching Location

If you’re struggling with diaper changes, it may be time to ditch the changing table. “Change your toddler’s position or location. Don’t use a changing table if they don’t like it,” Basu says. “Change them on the floor. That way if they were in the middle of playing, for example, you don’t have to get them to move far. You can even place one of your legs lightly over them to prevent them from rolling away.”

Many parents have found creative ways to position their bodies to hold down their wiggly toddlers—especially if poop is involved and you don’t want to risk them escaping mid-change. “I held down various squirmy limbs with my own (gently),” says Anne G. “A foot here, the inactive hand there, etc. I almost always changed my kid on a mat on the floor, not on a changing table. I imagine it’s much harder to hold down a squirmer otherwise.”

Clari G. would sit with her toddler on the floor between her legs so she could have a foot on each shoulder to hold him still, while Keren G. would lightly rest one of her legs on her child’s chest to keep them from flipping and rolling. “Both my kids were major squirmers,” she recalls.

Strategy #4: Vertical Diaper Changes

If the traditional horizontal diaper changes are no longer cutting it, “you might have to learn to change a diaper when a child is standing,” Karp says. “Bear in mind, these are non-stop moving beings; they hate to be kept on their back.”

Marie H. found changing her toddler’s diaper standing up was the way to go. “Once my son was around 10 months and standing pretty well, I would perch him with his feet on the windowsill and his hands on the glass. He would entertain himself watching out the window and banging on the glass. I held him steady with one hand and did the change with the other,” she recalls. “This was all with pre-fold cloth diapers, so there was a lot involved (diaper, snappi, cover). It took some practice, but it was so much easier than trying to keep him from rolling over and crawling away when I changed him on the floor.”

Of course, the standing diaper change doesn’t work for everyone. “People said to change diapers standing up, but that only works if you don’t have a runner!” says parent David C. Good news: There’s a middle ground: the lap change. Melody S. says, “I lie the diaper flat on my leg and then sit him on top of it and bring the tabs around him. Then once he stands back up, I adjust as needed. He’s always calmer in my lap; he doesn’t like laying on his back much.” Whatever works!

Strategy #5: Speeding Things Up

“Ultimately, you have to be fast!” Karp says, regardless of whichever technique you employ. Parent Megan M. agrees: “Do it quickly! You can always adjust the tabs once you slap it on.”

Of course, it all depends on your child, just how squirmy they are and what kinds of things hold their attention. Holly S. says, “I find the song ‘Lollipop’ by the Chordettes to be my most effective diaper changing song—don’t ask me why.” Meanwhile, David S. gave up on diaper changes entirely. “Honestly, it got so bad that I pushed for a much less gentle form of potty training at 2.5,” he says. “I figured if we were going to be fighting, it would at least be to get the kid on the potty. It worked and my back thanked me.”

In the end, like everything else in parenting, it all comes down to trial and error. Plus, as we parents know all too well, what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. As Laura S. points out, “There was never any one consistent way; I often had to try various tactics!” Hopefully this collection of tips is at least a good start.

Published June 2019

Plus, more from The Bump:

Photo: iStock