Changing a diaper
Photo: Digital Vision/Photodisc/Thinkstock
I don't want to leave the house for any reason. I flinch at the sound of a creaking floorboard. I have at least two extra sets of clothes on standby and a full packet of diaper wipes ready at all times.

My son hasn't pooped in four days, I'm home alone, and I'm terrified of what will happen next.

At this point it's probably fair to warn all the squeamish, well-rested, childless readers out there: Poop is endlessly fascinating to every new parent, and it's what we want to talk about more than almost any other topic.

When he was a newborn, my son would poop four or five (or more) times a day, which is totally normal for breastfed babies. As he got older, that gradually slowed to once a day or every other day. Now, four days between poopy diapers is common. When that happens, though, you're in serious danger of a bowel movement that even the most absorbent diaper or baby clothes could never hold.

How do you know when you're completely over the idea of poop being repulsive? Perhaps when you think to yourself, "This breakfast cereal smells exactly like baby poop," and you go ahead andfinish the bowl.

The truth is babies poop—a lot. It's one of the very few things newborns really do well. In the first weeks of life, a baby's poop undergoes a dramatic change. The first few days' bowel movements are called meconium—as black as tar and as sticky as, well, tar—which makes you wonder what this baby was up to inside that womb. Thankfully, the meconium days are brief and lack of sleep will pretty much wipe away any lingering memories of it from your mind.

According Dr. Jennifer Shu, co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn and Food Fights, what comes next is transitional stool. "A mixture of baby's new poop that they're making from the food that they're eating after being born and the meconium. It'll be this brownish color," she says. "And then once the meconium is totally cleared out, the poop will then often be a yellow, seedy, mustard-type of poop, especially in breastfed babies. In formula-fed babies, it may be pastier and more of a green color."

After a few days changing meconium diapers, regular diaper changes are like a treat. In fact, having to change diapers is truly something to be thankful for. They indicate everything is working correctly—if it's coming out, you know it's going in. Especially for parents of breastfed babies, this is very important. With formula, it's easier to tell if baby is eating enough because you can just count ounces—with breastfeeding, not knowing can be a source of tremendous stress.

This is why my wife and I, just like most other new parents, kept a detailed log of our son's intestinal activity: a poop chart.

These charts—bound in books with spiffy graphics and trendy colors, or printed on spartan, downloadable black-and-white pages—usually have each day broken down into a series of letters: Ws for wet diapers, Ss for stool (or BMs or Ps). Parents tick off a letter for each diaper, depending what it contained. Each day for the first week or so has a different recommended number of diaper changes.

While I had anticipated changing diapers, I did not expect to be a diaper accountant as well. I asked my own mom and mother-in-law about poop charts, and neither remembered being asked for this catalog by any doctor in the late 1970s.

When did parents start tracking bowels so closely? Dr. Shu says she witnessed the gradual rise of charting in the past 20 years. "My guess would be [it started] about 15 years ago—when the information technology started booming, we had more computers, we had more email," she says. "We just started to become more objective about things."

While all new parents are advised by pediatricians to chart their new baby's poops, nobody actually tells you when to stop. Some parents keep charting diapers, in addition to naps and feedings, for months. Dr. Shu says it's only really necessary until your baby has regained his birth weight. "I did it, as a first-time mom, for about six weeks. And then I realized it's not making any difference," she says. "I'm not changing anything; the baby's doing fine."

Now that our son is 7 months old, my wife and I stopped keeping track of every diaper, but we still monitor his naps and bottles very closely.

The impulse to keep detailed records of every moment of a baby's life could be part of a larger phenomenon. "I think it has to do with people not living with their parents—the baby's grandparents—and not knowing what's normal. If you're at home and your own mother is there, she can tell you, 'Oh that's what you used to do too.' Then you're not going to worry about it," Dr. Shu says. "But if you're just not sure, then what you're going to do is you're going to keep a journal. You're going to take it in to your doctor and ask them if it's normal."


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