Updated on February 2nd, 2024 // by Katie Griffin
The choice of whether or not to circumcise your baby is one clouded in controversy. Some see it as an unnecessary cosmetic procedure, while others argue that it is medically beneficial. Some worry about the pain they imagine their baby will go through. For some, the choice is cultural; for others, it is religious. Clearly, there are many factors to consider when making this decision. We can’t answer the question for you, but we hope to clear up some of the confusion surrounding circumcision and provide parents with the information they need to make an informed decision. So, let’s jump into circumcision pros and cons.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Table of contents
- What is Circumcision?
- Circumcision Pros & Cons: Let’s Talk PROS
- Circumcision Pros & Cons: Let’s Talk CONS
- What Do Professionals Say About Circumcison?
- What Happens During a Circumcision?
- What Should I Expect After the Circumcision?
- Circumcision Pros and Cons: The Takeaway
What is Circumcision?
Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin that covers the head of the penis. It is quite uncommon outside of the United States, and is mostly done only in Jewish and Muslim communities in the rest of the world. However, in the U.S., three-quarters of adult men are circumcised, and healthy newborn males are usually circumcised within the first few days of life. The numbers are falling, though. While it was once considered “a given,” more parents are at least weighing the pros and cons before deciding about circumcision.
Circumcision Pros & Cons: Let’s Talk PROS
Eliminates the risk of developing medical conditions such as:
- Phimosis – a tightening of the foreskin at the opening, preventing its ability to retract over the head of the penis
- Paraphimosis – the retracted foreskin is unable to return to its normal position over the head of the penis
- Balanposthitis – inflammation of the foreskin and penis head
- Balanitis xerotica obliterans – a disease that can lead to phimosis and urethral stenosis (the narrowing of the urethra)
- Preputial neoplasms – tumors of the foreskin (cancerous and/or benign)
Lowers the risk of contracting and passing on some viruses, diseases, and infections such as:
- HIV/AIDS and other STDs – Circumcision may reduce the risk of certain STIs, including HIV, in heterosexual men.
- HPV related diseases including cervical cancer
- Urinary Tract Infections – Studies have shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of UTIs in infancy.
- Genital ulcer diseases
- Penile Cancer – Although rare, circumcision might reduce the risk of penile cancer.
- Prevention of some penile problems – Conditions like phimosis and paraphimosis (described above) are prevented.
- Potential for easier hygeine – Some believe that circumcision makes it simpler to clean the penis, though proper hygiene can be maintained with or without foreskin.
Circumcision in newborns is simpler, less painful, and heals faster than in older babies, children, or adults
If for some reason, your child ends up having to be circumcised later on due to a medical condition or by choice, the process will be more risky and the recovery more painful.
Circumcision Pros & Cons: Let’s Talk CONS
Complications can occur during and after the procedure, such as:
These complications are fairly rare (somewhere between .2 and 2%) and usually minor. But like any surgical procedure the risks can’t be ignored.
- Hematoma (blood clots)
- Delayed wound healing
- Excessive skin removed
- Trouble urinating
- Cosmetic issues
- Erectile dysfunction
- Injury to the glans (penis head)
Loss of Natural Protection:
The foreskin protects the glans (the tip of the penis) from urine, feces, and irritation. Its removal may lead to increased sensitivity.
Ethical and Human Rights Considerations:
Some argue that circumcision without medical necessity and without the individual’s consent is an ethical issue.
Potential Impact on Sexual Function/Sensitivity:
There’s ongoing debate about whether circumcision affects sexual pleasure or function later in life.
What Do Professionals Say About Circumcison?
A task force for the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012 determined that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks enough that it should be an option provided at birth. This decision is based on a growing body of evidence showing that circumcision provides significant medical benefits. However, the risks are substantial enough that they do not recommend circumcision as a routine procedure. In fact, some insurance companies label it a cosmetic procedure and may not cover the cost of circumcision.
What Happens During a Circumcision?
- Your baby is placed on his back in a sterile environment. A special board with straps to hold down the legs may be used to prevent movement.
- The doctor cleans and sterilizes the penis by applying an antiseptic.
- Many doctors offer newborns a pacifier dipped in a sugar solution to help calm them.
- The doctor injects an anesthetic (like lidocaine) into the penis or uses a numbing cream to alleviate the baby’s pain during the procedure. (Not all doctors do this, but the AAP recommends it.)
- Then the doctor will likely use one of the two most common types of circumcision techniques in the US: With the Clamp Technique, the doctor separates the foreskin from the head of the penis using and probe and then applying a clamp that crushes the foreskin so it can be easily removed. With the Plastibell Technique, the doctor places a plastic shield or ring under the foreskin around the base of the penis and ties a suture (sterile string) around the outside of the foreskin, over top of the ring. This cuts off the blood supply; the foreskin and ring will fall off in a week or two.
- After the foreskin is removed, the doctor will apply petroleum jelly to the incision and cover it loosely with gauze.
- This process usually takes less than 20 minutes. Afterward, your baby will be able to return to you in the hospital and will be observed regularly for a few hours.
- The incision should be completely healed within a week or so. If a ring was used it should fall off somewhere between 10 and 14 days after the procedure.
What Should I Expect After the Circumcision?
After circumcision, you will need to take special care of your baby’s penis until it heals (7-10 days). Keep the area as clean as possible using plain water to wash it daily and whenever your baby has a bowel movement. Use petroleum jelly or an antibiotic ointment to keep the head of the penis protected.
What is Normal with Healing After a Circumcision?
The head of the penis may be red and tender for the first few days after circumcision. You may also see yellow fluid or a scab at the end of the penis. This is normal and both should gradually go away within a week.
A little blood and bruising is normal too, as long as it isn’t more than a few drops. Use a damp washcloth to apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding. Then apply an ointment to protect it from further irritation.
When to Contact Baby’s Doctor After a Circumcision:
- Redness and/or swelling of the penis doesn’t improve after 3 days
- The redness spreads up the shaft of the penis
- Head of the penis turns black or dark blue
- Your baby isn’t urinating more than a dribble in 8 hours
- Baby has a fever
- Tiny blisters appear on your baby’s skin
- Your baby cries and can’t be comforted for 2 hours
- Baby is bleeding is more than a few drops (or you see a blood spot in his diaper bigger than a quarter)
- Bleeding at the incision won’t stop with pressure
- Bleeding is a few drops but happens 3 or more times
- The plastic ring has moved on to the shaft of the penis
- The plastic ring is still on after 14 days
Call 911 immediately if:
- Your baby is very weak and/or not moving
- Your baby loses a large amount of blood
Circumcision Pros and Cons: The Takeaway
This topic continues to be one where there isn’t an easy answer. Doctors don’t all agree on which is best. Internet forums are full of disagreeing parents-to-be. Common search engine questions include things like “Is it healthier to circumcise your baby?” and “Do doctors recommend circumcision for babies?” But there are more than simple questions, they’re questions loaded with doubt and angst, like “Is it cruel to circumcise a baby?” and “Why circumcision is a bad idea?” Parents want to get this right. And while there’s no way to time-travel to the future and ask your grown child his preference, the fact that you’re taking the time to research it shows that you’re doing the very best you can. And as long as you’re doing your best, you should feel confident that you’re giving your baby what he deserves.
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- World Health Organization (2008). Male circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/43749/9789241596169_eng.pdf
- Task Force on Circumcision. (2012 September). Circumcision Policy Statement. Pediatrics, 130 (3) 585-586. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-1989
- Task Force on Circumcision. (2012 September). Male Circumcision. Pediatrics, 130 (3) e756-e785. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-19
- How to Care for Your Baby’s Penis. (2016 November). American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/bathing-skin-care/Pages/Caring-For-Your-Sons-Penis.aspx
- Schmitt, Barton. Circumcision Problems. American Academy of Pediatrics.(https://www.healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/symptom-checker/Pages/symptomviewer.aspx?symptom=Circumcision%20Problems
- Holman, J.R., Lewis, E.L. & Ringler, R.L. Neonatal circumcision techniques. (1995) Am Fam Physician. 52 (2) 511-520.(https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7625325/
- Kurtis, P.S., DeSilva, H.N., Bernstein, B.A., Malakh, L., & Schechter, N.L. (1999) A comparison of the Mogen and Gomco clamps in combination with dorsal penile nerve block in minimizing the pain of neonatal circumcision. Pediatrics. 103(2)e23. DOI: 10.1542/peds.103.2.e23
- Circumcision: Gomco Technique. Stanford Medicine. https://med.stanford.edu/newborns/professional-education/circumcision/gomco-clamp-technique.html
- Circumcision: Mogen Technique. Stanford Medicine. https://med.stanford.edu/newborns/professional-education/circumcision/mogen-clamp-technique.html
- Circumcision: Plastibell Technique. Stanford Medicine. https://med.stanford.edu/newborns/professional-education/circumcision/plastibell-technique.html