by Martin Winckler, M.D. © 2013
Lire en Français ici. Translated to English by Nicolas Maubert and Danelle Frisbie for DrMomma.org with Dr Winckler’s blessing. Dr. Martin Winckler is a general practitioner and author in France. Read more from him at his website, MartinWinckler.com. Reposted at Circinfo.org by permission of Peaceful Parenting (DrMomma.org), to which we extend our thanks.
Many young mothers today are very worried because their mother, or their mother-in-law, or their doctor, told them they must “clean” the glans (head) of the penis of their baby boy, and that to do so, you must retract (i.e. roll back) the foreskin like a turtleneck. In reality, however, this should not be done. The practice of retraction only causes problems and has no benefits. What follows is an article interview printed in the L’Arbre à bébé Association's November 2005 issue. For this interview I answered some questions on the delicate topic of proper penile care and retraction that I am now sharing here with you.
Question One: What is your position regarding foreskin retraction, as a physician and as a parent? Do you retract your own patients? Do you retract your own sons for 'cleaning?'
I have never retracted the foreskin of a boy. Not any one of my patients, nor any of my five sons. (I believe if I asked them what they think of foreskin retraction they would look at me like something was wrong with me to have such strange ideas!) Very early in my career, in the early 1980s, while reading the work of pediatrician Aldo Naouri, I had the notion that the practice of retraction was not only unnecessary, but aggressive for everyone -- starting with those most concerned (the boys), but also for their parents. The act itself is aggressive because once you touch a little boy’s penis, an erection is induced. Not all mothers [or fathers] are going to be comfortable with this, and we understand why. Boys will often smile or laugh that it tickles and very quickly we find that parents prefer to leave that area alone to care for itself.
Question Two: What do you think of the arguments commonly used by proponents of retraction (that retraction will prevent adhesions, phimosis)?
Phimosis is the condition in which the orifice of the foreskin is too tight to allow the glans to leave when the boy is erect. So it can not interfere with boys until the age at which they are likely to have intercourse. However, most studies that have been done on the subject show that any amount of retraction, 'just a little' or a lot, has no medical function, neither for hygienic purposes, nor to prevent phimosis, which is an uncommon condition to begin with. It used to be said that retraction was necessary to fight against adhesions and to 'clean up' anything under the prepuce. However, preputial secretions are as normal as vulvar secretions in the little girls. There is nothing wrong with them whatsoever. Never have we suggested that we 'clean' the vulva of our daughters with a cotton swab, yet I have seen mothers try to pass a cotton swab under the foreskin of their son because a doctor told them to do so!
Quite simply, the foreskin is self-cleaning. The orifice of the foreskin is tight at birth on purpose to prevent dirt (bacteria, viruses, etc.) from creeping into it. Retraction (a dilating force) is then entirely unnatural. And it hurts! Retraction causes tears and can cause paraphimosis (having the foreskin stuck in a retracted position behind a swollen glans) which itself is an emergency. This induced paraphimosis is actually much more common than true phimosis.
A common scenario: A mom wanted to retract a boy (usually in the bath). The manipulation resulted in a retraction after erection. Suddenly, the foreskin 'turtlenecks' (squeezes) the glans, which then swells and turns purple. The child yells. And in a warm bath, it gets worse. [Vasocongestion takes place, leading to more blood flow, a throbbing erection, and tighter constriction.] In short, parents call the doctor and then one of two things happen. Either the doctor panics and sends the child and his parents to the emergency room, or the doctor understands what has just happened solves it very simply:
I saw dozens of situations like this one early in my career. It was always among boys whose mothers had a slight obsession of making sure their son was “clean”, or among those whose parents had conscientiously felt pressure to retract following the advice of a relative or highly invasive physician. So much so that their little boy was retracted three times each week - so often that these little boys begin to develop anxiety when their mothers approached them to change or “clean” them. The more mothers touched their boys’ penises in this fashion, the more young children became angry, the more it hurt, the more retraction became torment, until they developed paraphimosis. And then parents call for help. In short, it is a vicious cycle.
Very quickly I started to pass along the message to young parents that they should not even touch the foreskin. Leave it alone. And with this advice, over the years, I began to see less and less paraphimosis among my patients. There were now more and more happy little boys who tugged on their own foreskin, laughing, without anxiety. And I saw more and more mothers delighted with the fact that they did not have to handle their son’s penis - in fact, they did not have to do anything for its care. I have not had any little boys need surgery on their penis during my career as a general practitioner, and I saw very few boys ever in need of surgery during medical school, because in my district, no doctor was a fan of retraction.
Question Three: At what age should I be worried and consider surgery for a boy whose foreskin does not retract?
It’s simple: you should never worry because there is no reason to worry. Foreskin retraction is a cultural practice [in a few nations], and does not take place at all in other countries. Still, there are no more cases of phimosis or “problems” among those nations where foreskin retraction is unheard of. Retraction by someone other than a boy himself serves no purpose at any age. And yet, all parents of little boys can testify that fiddling and tugging on the foreskin are commonplace practices among infants and toddlers (up to eight to ten years old). This self-exploration causes no problems. Quite simply, the foreskin is not meant to be retracted by anyone other than the owner himself - it serves as a sheath to the glans in this way, a protector from outside invasion. As a child grows, the foreskin lengthens and softens over time. With puberty and masturbation, the foreskin opens on its own. It stretches along the penis little by little, allowing for erections to take place without cause for concern. By the time the hormones of puberty are in full swing, the vast majority of boys have already retracted their own foreskin and eased the preputial orifice open. Even if their prepuce was tightly closed in childhood, they do not have phimosis, and this is evident as young adults. So small is this concern that these boys do not even know the word 'phimosis!' In rare cases when there is a real issue, it is at puberty that this is discovered, not before. If a 'problem' arises before puberty, it is likely paraphimosis, because a boy is being retracted - see above.
Throughout my career as a general practitioner [~30 years in 2013] I have only had to circumcise one single man, aged 22 years, who had developed untreatable phimosis that was the result of brutal retraction as an infant and child that left tight foreskin scarring on his penis. This started to bother him at puberty - not before. And, in fact, it was the way he was treated as a baby and child that caused the inflammation that resulted in his phimosis - not the other way around. He had to be circumcised as a result of improper care by those who did not know any better. When we repeatedly tear the foreskin at an age of development, it does lead to scarring, and this in turn tightens the foreskin over time, causing the problems we then blame on foreskin (rather than improper care).
Question Four: What is your advice to a mother who does not know what a pediatrician will do to her baby during a check-up? What should she do if a physician suggests that she retract? How should she handle guilt-trips pushing improper care?
Retraction is a problem that exists merely because it is a matter of culture-based opinion and not a factual issue of prevention or health. Again, there is no evidence that retraction has even the slightest benefit, but its disadvantages are medically obvious. Doctors do not exist to dictate their personal opinions onto parents, and there should be no guilting of mothers who consciously decide they will not "mess with" the penises of their sons. In fact, I find these mothers to be the ones who are the most mentally stable and emotionally healthy. Would a mother okay the circumcision of her son just to please a physician who tells her it is "cleaner"? Of course not. The same goes for retraction. If a doctor talks about such things, tell him that you will leave your child to figure things out for himself, and if a problem arises down the road, you will deal with it at that point. Above all, do not let a physician who is suggesting retraction use your child for their demonstration.
Just as there is zero justification in performing vaginal exams on infant and young girls, so also is there never justification to retract and examine the inside of a baby boy's or child's penis when there is nothing wrong. Doing so is not alright for girls, and it is not alright for boys. The only time a physician should be handling your child's genitals (gently!) is if the penis or vulva in question has a visible abnormality that requires examination. If this is not the case, then hands off!
Source: Hands Off My Foreskin! Dr. Martin Winckler on the Care of Baby Boys
by Martin Winckler, M.D. © 2013
[ Back to Top ]