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Parental Advisory: Miserable Retch

My mom always said that my dad didn’t change diapers because he had a “sensitive gag reflex,” which I interpreted as a “lame excuse.” Now that I have my own baby, I still think it’s a lame excusive, but I’m also starting to realize that having a sensitive gag reflex and being a parent don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. My son spits up constantly, and it smells terrible, and every time he does it I immediately need to change my clothes, or I start dry-heaving. I’m worried that his toddler years will be even worse, what with smelly poop and messy eating. But I feel like a wuss! How do I cope with this? – Running Gag

Dear Gag,

Sleep when the baby sleeps, we get that. But puke when the baby pukes? Not quite so efficient. Your dad may indeed have been making excuses, but there are plenty of people who find the smells, sights and mere thought of fragrant bodily ejections completely repulsive to the point of gagging. A sensitive gag reflex is generally defined as one too easily triggered by touch. What you’re talking about is a more psychological response. With physical (and potentially messy) consequences.

You’re right that the triggers will keep on coming. Mothers of older kids, with their complex, richly textured diets, often look back with nostalgia to the sweet early days of milk spew. Toddler poops are downright human. Canine even. And don’t even get us started on the inevitable stomach virus. We’ve definitely heard of domino-effect family barfing. It’s no fun.

The sad truth is that parenthood does involve a certain amount of spontaneous bodily mess. You may get used to it as time goes on, you may not. But there are things you can do to help prepare yourself, at least some of the time.

Keep any combination of the following handy: ALTOIDS or strong mints, Carmex lip balm, peppermint oil, room fragrance, strongly scented diapers and wipes, scented baby lotion, powder, and deodorized diaper bin liners. Many of these odor-disguising tips were suggestions from nurses, who know a thing or two about dealing with icky body smells. They recommend dabbing a strong scent under the nose or on the shoulder so you can turn and inhale it when necessary. Some scented products can be pretty heavy on the chemicals; you may want to consider natural alternatives . . . unless you need the full-on nuclear assault of artificial fragrance.

In addition to masking the smell, you can also mask your face. Literally. Here’s a charming example. It’s a bit drastic, but you could pop it on for diaper changing if that turns out to be a particularly gaggy time for you. If your little one gets a little freaked out by it, decorate it with a smiley face or play peek-a-boo with it. Or you could just have a cute little nose plug – the kind swimmers use – parked next to the diaper cream. Discreet and cheap. These little nodes might work, too, especially if you dabbed a bit of something you’d prefer to smell (peppermint oil, perhaps?) on the outside.

We’re pretty sure you’re already trying to race through odorous operations already, but in case the fear of barfing is slowing you down, here’s the fast diaper changing technique: Get new diaper and scented wipes ready. Open full diaper, immediately sweep the front of the diaper down towards the back, scooping up residue as you go. Roll the thing into a ball, use the tabs to seal it tightly, and toss into odor isolating bin ASAP. This should take seconds.

The quick cleanup also applies to messy eating. A fresh food mess is just food. But when it’s crusted and embedded in car seat, subjected to a few days of sun-baking with the windows up? Oh boy. Once your kid is old enough to eat and drink in the car, you may want to consider limiting car snacks to dry, odorless ones and drinks to water. And you can save yourself a lot of nausea by getting in the habit of a regular clean-up soon after spillage.

If you’re gagging from sight or smell, it’s your mind, not your body, that’s making you sick. Though it feels like a reflex, you could (theoretically) try to train yourself to lessen the association. There are people who claim they can help a trigger-happy gagger through hypnosis. We can’t vouch for the effectiveness of this technique, but we can point you to an online version.

You can try some less drastic relax and distract methods as well. Try humming. It can be hard to gag while humming. Also focusing on the tune may distract you. Breathe through your mouth and/or focus on exhaling. Tell yourself, “it’s almost over, it’s going to end, it’s okay.” Try not to let the anxiety ratchet up. Sometimes the fear of puking can be the worst part.

Potty training will put an end to much of this stinky business. But a quick word on that: try to downplay your dislike of your child’s excrement. He may have a hard time with time potty training if he’s seen you react with horror to each of his bowel movements. Parents are actually encouraged to praise a good poop, which may be hard for you if you’re concentrating on not vomiting . . . but do the best you can to make it all seem normal, for everybody’s future sake.

One last suggestion: If it’s really miserable for you, what about taking your dad’s route? We’re progressive co-parenters and all, so we know you want to be involved . . . but what are the chances your husband has the same gaggy condition? Delegate!

Have a question? Email beingpregnant@babble.com

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