Prior to having kids, I was one of those women who felt that the topic of circumcision was "for my husband to decide." I didn't really understand why it was a big deal, since "everyone did it." When the topic was covered in our childbirth class, my husband and I drove home in silence, horrified by the information we had learned. Part of me just didn't want to believe any of it. It couldn't be true, could it? My husband. on the other hand, was adamant that any little boys of ours would remain intact. From that point on we both made efforts to learn as much as we could and found the most informed opinions on the topic coming from other parents. One of those parents was none other than Katie Ward, NY State Director of Your Whole Baby.
By Katie Ward, Your Whole Baby New York State Director
More and more American parents are opting to leave their baby boys with all their functioning parts these days — this includes the foreskin of the penis!
The decision to leave a baby’s penis intact often brings with it many fears and questions. Here are five common worries that first-time boy parents have when it comes to taking care of their kids’ parts...debunked.
Myth #1: You need to pull it back to clean.
The idea that moms and dads should be attempting to pull back the foreskins of their children is a dangerously pervasive myth. Why is it dangerous? Simple: The foreskin of a child’s penis is typically fused to the head of his penis by a protective membrane (you can think of it as the boy version of a hymen). This membrane doesn’t dissolve until an average age of 10 years. Trying to pull the foreskin back before the membrane is gone can result in pain and trauma, bleeding, scarring, and sometimes paraphimosis, a medical emergency. (Plus, it’s awkward. “C’mere kiddo, time to clean your penis again.”) When you change your intact boy’s diaper or give him a bath, there’s no special penis cleaning involved. If there’s poop on his penis, just wipe the outside from base to tip. The foreskin tip acts like a sphincter muscle, closed tightly except during urination — despite what you may have heard, no lint will get trapped!
Ironically, this “only clean what is seen rule” does not apply to circumcised boys. If a baby has had his foreskin torn and cut away, the parent is instructed to lubricate the exposed head and pull back the remnants of wounded tissue that often re-adhere to it, at every diaper change, until healing is complete. Even with the most diligent parents, circumcised males often experience unnatural adhesions and skin bridges that cause problems into adulthood.
Myth #2: It should be retractable by (insert random age here): 3 months/6 months/1 year/3 years/5 years/8 years/10 years/etc.
See #1. The average age of full foreskin retractability is 10, and like with most developmental milestones, there’s a wide range of normal. Sometimes preschoolers can retract their foreskins; sometimes pubescent teenagers can’t yet. Both scenarios are normal. In any event, the only person who should retract a boy’s foreskin is the boy himself, after the membrane has naturally separated. Even when his foreskin is retractable, he does not need to pull it back and rinse during baths/showers until puberty hormones kick in. (If you’re worried, I promise, he’ll figure it out himself.)
Myth #3: There’s a heightened risk of childhood/adult infections, so meticulous hygiene is a must.
This is a myth left over from Victorian era medicine. A handful of folks desperate to continue the child circumcision ritual regularly kick dead research horses, attempting to suggest that routine amputation of a normal body part is based in sound science. But this view ignores the truth that the inner foreskin and head of the penis are mucous membranes, part of the body’s first line of defense against pathogens. It also disregards any inherent worth in this erogenous, self-lubricating, mobile, specialized adult sexual tissue. In our modern era, circumcision has been dubbed “the cure in search of a disease.” Fortunately, the international consensus is in: routine infant circumcision is not recommended.
The best way to ensure your child’s genitals stay healthy is to leave them alone. Soap and aggressive scrubbing are bad news for anyone’s genitals, as most adult women can attest!
Myth #4: It’s so much work.
There’s literally NO WORK. It is easier to care for an intact child’s penis than a circumcised one. The main challenge you may face is keeping everyone else’s hands off! (Find resources for protecting your son at the doctor’s and at daycare here.)
Myth #5: I won’t be able to get him to stop touching himself.
Moms of intact and circumcised boys alike are all too familiar with how much interest kids can take in their own private parts. Moms of little girls are all too familiar with this, as well! Self-exploration is normal and healthy for all children, and it’s also a wonderful opportunity for learning about boundaries and privacy (A.K.A. “This is something you can do in your own room, but not in Aunt Myrna’s living room.”) In a larger sense, we can help our children with appropriate boundary-setting and boundary-respecting skills by allowing them agency over their own sexuality — granting them ownership of the healthy, functional parts they were born with, and letting those parts develop on their own time, free from unnecessary or harmful intervention.
If you're seeking more information about intact care, foreskin functions, and circumcision-related issues — this includes parents struggling with a previous decision to circumcise — join Your Whole Baby’s Community Facebook group.
Hi. I'm Lindsay. Daughter, sister, wife, mother and collector of useless (and useful) information.