When my son was a newborn, we took him for his first well-baby visit at the pediatrician. After all his vitals were taken, the doctor started to examine his cute wee parts, working his way down from his head to his toes. When he got to my son’s penis (which wasn’t circumcised), he slid down the foreskin, peeked inside, and closed it back up again.
All of this like it was no big deal, just business as usual.
But it was a very big deal to me. I shot my husband my “WTF just happened?” look, let out an inaudible gasp, and stood there with mouth agape. I was totally shocked and horrified about what had just happened.
Don’t get me wrong. I was never one of these “circumcision is mutilation” type of parents. We had done a small bit of research on the topic, spoke to other parents who hadn’t circumcised, and decided it was what worked for us. I was—and still am—in the “you do you, and I’ll do me” camp when it comes to whether or not to keep a child “intact.”
But this wasn’t about that.
When that doctor pulled back my tiny son’s foreskin—which, like every small part of him, seemed extremely fragile—there was a deep, instinctual part of me that wanted to scream, “STOP IT! THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT! DO YOU REALLY, SERIOUSLY NEED TO DO THAT TO MY PRECIOUS BABY?”
Of course, like many timid, new parents out there, I kept my lips tightly sealed (I regret it to this day), and ended up just going to a different doctor in the practice, so that I wouldn’t have to endure the “pulling back” thing again.
Since then, I’ve done more research, and it turns out that my instincts were entirely correct. Retracting the foreskin of an uncircumcised boy’s penis is not necessary at all, and can be harmful.
Leading medical organizations concur with this. Take the Academy of American Pediatrics’ (AAP) stance on the issue. The AAP clearly states that foreskin should not be retracted. A boy’s foreskin retracts on its own, in its own time, the AAP explains, and doing so prematurely can result in harm to the child.
In the AAP’s “Care for an Uncircumcised Penis” article, published on their website, they explain that the foreskin naturally retracts in the first few years of a child’s life, although when it happens can vary widely from child to child. As boys become more “aware” of their bodies (ahem, we all know this happens with our little boys), they might even retract the foreskin themselves.
But, under no circumstances, should you (or your doctor) do this for them.
As the AAP writes: “[F]oreskin retraction should never be forced. Until the foreskin fully separates, do not try to pull it back. Forcing the foreskin to retract before it is ready can cause severe pain, bleeding, and tears in the skin.”
Holy crap, right? And OUCH. Those poor babies.
Dr. Christiane Northrup, an OB/GYN and New York Times bestselling author, goes a step further and warns that retracting the foreskin early can result in swelling and infections for our little ones. In a 2013 article for the Huffington Post, Dr. Northrup explains that injuries that happen as a result of forced retraction are called premature, forcible, foreskin retraction (PFFR), and can even land babies in the ER.
But Dr. Northrup warns that doctors all over are still doing this, despite the fact that they should know better not to.
“Circumcision has lost favor in the U.S. in recent years so much so that now roughly 1 million newborn boys are not circumcised (each year),” writes Northrup. “Simultaneously, the American medical professionals appear to have lost the folk knowledge of parents who, for tens of thousands of years, once left their child’s foreskin entirely alone, to develop normally by itself, the way Europeans do.”
As Dr. Northrup explains, the penis is “self-cleaning,” and so besides the dangers of retracting the foreskin, there is no real evidenced-based reason to do it. In fact, the foreskin is actually there to protect the penis, and keep it safe.
“No special cleaning or retraction of the foreskin is necessary because the foreskin is attached to the underlying penile tissue by a normal membrane, which is analogous to the female hymen,” writes Dr. Northup. “This membrane is clearly protective — and should be regarded as such.”
Thankfully, my son wasn’t hurt when that doctor retracted his foreskin. But that is clearly not the case for every child who has this done—and we all need to be aware of the dangers of retracting this vulnerable tissue prematurely.
The more I learn about the dangers of premature foreskin retraction, the more pissed I am about what happened. What if my child had gotten hurt as a result of this practice? And either way, it felt to me like a violation of trust for the doctor to retract my son’s foreskin without at least asking me at first.
So here’s my advice to any new parents out there of uncircumcised baby boys: Tell your doctor before the exam that you don’t want your baby’s foreskin retracted. Shout it from the rooftops. You can even print out the AAP’s statement about it (remember that the AAP is your pediatrician’s own medical organization) and take it with you to the doctor’s office.
And if your doctor does it without your permission, don’t keep your mouth shut like I did. We need to voice our concerns to our doctors, no matter how difficult or intimidating that can be. After all, we are our child’s advocates—no one else is.
Of course, none of this is meant to bash doctors. We know how invaluable, lifesaving, and generous most doctors are. But that doesn’t mean they know everything. And, that doesn’t mean we can’t speak up when we feel uncomfortable.
All doctors (and caregivers) need to know that retracting a baby’s foreskin is not only an outdated practice, but a potentially dangerous one as well—and they need to know it now.