The circumcision decision

Boys are born with skin (called foreskin) covering the head of their penis. Circumcision involves surgically removing the foreskin from the head of the penis so that the tip of the penis is exposed.

Parents expecting a boy will want to consider even before their baby’s birth whether to have him circumcised. Not only medical but also cultural, social, and religious factors may come into play. Almost 60 percent of male babies born in U.S. hospitals were circumcised before discharge in 2010.

Circumcisions are usually performed by a doctor in the hospital within a day or two of the baby’s birth. Circumcisions may also be done several days later as part of a religious ceremony at home.

What are the medical benefits? 

Experts have identified the following medical benefits of circumcision: 

• reduced risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) 

• reduced risk of penile cancer 

• some prevention against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV 

What are the risks? 

Like any medical procedure, circumcision brings some risks. While the incidence of complications is small, and serious complications are rare, data show that the risk of bleeding, infection, pain, and poor outcome may increase if the foreskin is cut too short or too long or doesn’t heal properly.

When circumcision is done during the newborn period, complication rates are lower than when the procedure is performed later in life. 

Rates of male newborn circumcision have been decreasing in other developed countries, related to concerns about the permanency of the procedure before the child is able to participate in decision-making.

How is circumcision performed? 

The procedure is quick and often performed in the hospital’s nursery. To help make it painless, the penis is numbed with a topical or injectable anesthetic before the foreskin is cut away. Afterward, an ointment is placed on the penis and a piece of gauze is loosely wrapped around it for protection while it heals.

The penis usually heals completely in about 7–10 days. Parents are instructed to put a small amount of ointment on the tip of the penis at each diaper change and to change the gauze to keep the diaper from sticking to the penis during healing. They’re told to call their baby’s health care provider right away if he has problems urinating or there is bleeding, swelling, or any sign of infection like redness or fever. 

What do experts recommend? 

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ “Healthy Children” website noted in 2015 that “circumcision has potential medical benefits and advantages, as well as risks.” The statement continued: “Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it....”

In the end, though, the decision was left to parents: “[E]xisting scientific evidence is not sufficient to recommend routine circumcision. Therefore, because the procedure is not essential to a child's current well-being, we recommend that the decision to circumcise is one best made by parents in consultation with their pediatrician….” 

What factors influence parents’ decisions on circumcision? 

Some parents circumcise for medical, hygiene, or religious reasons. Others circumcise for social reasons—for example, not wanting their son to look or feel different from other men in the family.

Parents may decide not to circumcise because of risks associated with the procedure. Others believe that the foreskin protects the penis. Or they may feel that circumcision is a violation of their child’s right to make decisions about his own body. Some believe that removal of the foreskin makes the tip of the penis less sensitive, resulting in a decrease in sexual pleasure later in life. 

Parents who decide to have their baby circumcised should discuss the procedure with their child’s doctor and ensure that the circumcision is done by an experienced and qualified health care provider. 

Last updated October 15, 2019

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