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Using Diapers (Nappies) on Shabbat

What are the relevant laws I need to know about diapering a baby on Shabbat? I do a lot of babysitting and this will probably become relevant.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Good luck in your babysitting. There are a number of laws you will need to be familiar with to do this properly. I’m assuming below you will be using disposable diapers.

(1) For diapers which use tape to seal them, it is preferable to open and reseal them shortly before Shabbat. Jewish law views taping and gluing as alternate forms of sewing, one of the 39 types of forbidden labor on Shabbat (see this article). (Conversely, removing tape is the equivalent of the labor of tearing, which classically refers to taking apart stitches in order to resew them.) We are permitted to tape and remove tape for a short period of time – for under 24 hours (which more resembles buttoning than attaching). Thus, if the diaper was opened late Friday afternoon, re-opening it on Shabbat is fine. (Note that when a diaper is put on a baby on Shabbat, it will always be replaced in less than 24 hours (we would hope), so there is no issue with doing so on Shabbat.)

(Note that apart from the adhesive strips, sometimes the perimeter of the diaper itself appears to be glued shut before use. This occurs during production and packaging and is not done intentionally (for the purpose of sealing the diaper). Thus, we are definitely permitted to open a diaper regardless of any such adhesions (The Shabbos Home, Vol. 1 VII:D, based on Mishna Berurah 340:45).)

(2) If you did not preopen diapers before Shabbat, you can still open them on Shabbat. (Many authorities permit this altogether since the seals are manufactured intentionally to be opened later, and so they are not a permanent seal. Furthermore, the strips are not glued closed to attach two surfaces together, but just to be left in a protected state for later use (Archot Shabbat Vol. 1, Ch. 11 note 46).)

(3) If a diaper has Velcro strips to seal it, they may be opened on Shabbat without preparing them beforehand. The reason is because Velcro seals surfaces by “tangling” rather than gluing/sewing, and so may be done as regular on Shabbat (Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchatah 15:78, Archot Shabbat Vol. 1, 11:7-8).

(4) In terms of cleaning the baby, many authorities do not permit using baby wipes on Shabbat, while some allow it. (We personally did not when our children were young.) The issue with that is that water may be squeezed out of the wipe during use, and squeezing a liquid from a solid relates to the forbidden activity of threshing (which can be generalized into extracting food from a non-food source or liquid from a solid). If a wipe is only damp – so that pressing it against the baby will not make him wet, then its use would be allowed.

The best way to clean a baby is to use a soapy liquid solution. This is sold in spray bottles nowadays and is also quite easy to make yourself. The baby can be wetted and wiped off. (Care should be taken that the tissues used to wipe off the baby do not become so wet that water is squeezed out of them during the cleaning process. (Napkins or precut paper towels are better for this.))

(Note that you can’t wet the paper towel first and then wipe the baby because wetting something with clean water is like “washing” it, which is a form of Shabbat labor. Rather, the liquid should be applied to the baby first. The subsequent wiping up of the dirty water is not “cleaning” the paper towel but dirtying it.)

(5) If the baby has a rash, you are allowed to apply baby cream or powder on him. (There are no restrictions using medicines and salves on a baby when needed, unlike a grown-up who may take medication only in cases of sickness (Rema to Shulchan Aruch O.C. 328:17).) However, we may not spread a cream (one which is too thick to pour) on Shabbat. Thus, diaper cream may be squeezed out of the tube onto the area of the rash, but it not spread out further (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 314:11, Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchata 33:14).

(6) To dispose of the old diaper, you shouldn’t use the adhesives to tape it shut before throwing it away since that tape will basically last permanently. As above, we are allowed to tape things shut only for a very short period of time. You should rather just put the old diaper in a bag as is and throw it out (and if the tape happens to stick onto another surface, that was not your doing).

An unrelated issue to be aware of is working as a babysitter on Shabbat. That can only be done together with weekday work – so it isn’t the equivalent of working for pay on Shabbat. See this past response for further details.

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