July 13, 2023/Children's Health

Bath Time for Baby: When and How To Bathe Your Newborn

Be mindful about temperature, positioning and efficiency when it’s comes to your little one

newborn being dried off after a bath

The nurses made it look so easy at the hospital, didn’t they? They washed, rinsed and dried off your band-new bundle of joy, then diapered and swaddled them up like it was no big deal.

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But now it’s your turn. And suddenly, bathing your newborn doesn’t seem as simple as the people at the hospital made it look.

What’s the right bath temperature? Should I start at the top and work down? Or bottom to top? And what to do about that umbilical stump?

Rest assured, you got this.

Pediatrician Peter VanHeyst, DO, walks us through baby’s first bath, so you can be confident your newborn will be safe, sound and oh-so-clean.

How to bathe your newborn

A safe newborn bath is all a matter of positioning, temperature and minimizing risk of injury.

Your baby’s first few baths should be sponge baths. As in, using a soapy washcloth to clean them up, rather than putting them in water. Until your baby’s umbilical stump falls off, you don’t want to get their soon-to-be belly button wet if you don’t have to. The stump will come off about two weeks after they’re born. Then you can move on to a full-on bath.

1. Get your supplies

Prepping is key to a quick, easy and safe newborn bath.

“You want to make sure you have all your supplies in arm’s reach,” Dr. VanHeyst says. “That way, you can keep your hands on your baby at all times, which is important to prevent slips.”

Bath time should take place in a temperature-controlled environment. Close any windows to avoid a breeze.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Body wash and shampoo. This can be a combination product or separate body wash and shampoo bottles. Make sure whatever you use is tear-free and fragrance-free.
  • A soft washcloth.
  • A cup for rinsing.
  • A dry, soft towel for drying off. Flatten the towel out before you start the bath. That way you don’t have to unfold it while you have your baby in your arms.
  • A clean diaper.
  • Clothes to put on after the bath.
  • For a sponge bath: Fill two basins with water, one with soapy water, one with plain water for rinsing.
  • For a full bath: Fill a sturdy baby bath with no more than two inches of water. Make sure the baby tub is in a safe, flat, sturdy location, such as in a bathtub or on the floor of a walk-in shower.

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What about lotion?

Dr. VanHeyst recommends waiting on that. “Newborn skin usually isn’t mature enough to deal with lotions. So, we tried to avoid that if we can in the first month. After that, a lotion made for babies should fine.”

Plus, babies are slippery enough as is. No reason to add lotion to the mix and make it even easier for them to slide out of your arms.

Bath temperature

Your baby’s bath water should be no more than about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). That’s because babies are more sensitive to changes in temperature than older kids and adults. They can more easily get uncomfortably hot or cold.

“Babies and adults have a lot different physiological properties when it comes to temperature regulation,” Dr. VanHeyst explains. “You really want the water temperature to be just a little touch warmer than body temperature.”

Think of it like this: An eight-pound turkey will heat up in the oven much more quickly than a 20-pounder. That’s because it doesn’t take as much heat to reach the core of the smaller bird. Babies are the same way. Fluctuations in temperature affect them more because they don’t need as much heat (or cold) to reach their core.

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends turning your water heater to its lowest setting, no more than120 F (49 C). That will keep your water from accidentally becoming too hot for baby to handle.

2. Work top to bottom

Start by washing your baby from their head and work your way down. Their top half is usually the cleanest area, while the diaper area is the most likely area for ick to accumulate. Leaving the messy parts for last means you’re less likely to transfer the messy stuff to the cleaner parts of your baby.

Starting at the top also helps to maintain better control of the baby.

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For babies getting a sponge bath, you really only need to focus on the dirty areas. They may not need a rigorous shampooing. Think of it as more like a targeted spot-clean — particularly after a spit-up incident or following a … ahem … diaper malfunction.

Once they’re clean, remove them from the tub and wrap them in a soft towel to dry off. Get them dressed quickly to warm up.

How to hold baby during a bath

Caution: Babies are slippery when wet. And if your newborn doesn’t love their cleanup job (and they may not), they might fuss around and be even more prone to sliding. It’s scary to consider, but the AAP says babies can drown in as little as one to two inches of water. So, safe positioning and handling is essential.

Dr. VanHeyst offers this advice to keep baby safe from bath time falls:

  1. Support baby’s head and neck with your non-dominant hand. Use your dominant hand for cleaning. (As in, if you’re right-handed, cradle your baby with your left hand, using your right to hold the washcloth.)
  2. Don’t rely on baby tubs to keep your baby safe. Some of those tubs come with padding and cushioning that can give the illusion that babies are safe in there hands-free. But those pads aren’t going to prevent slipping. And they can also present a suffocation risk if baby slides out of position.
  3. Never (ever, ever) leave baby unattended in or near water. Keep at least one hand on them at all times.
  4. If you can, enlist a grownup helper for bath time. Four hands are better than two.

3. Keep it quick

Sure, you may like to linger in the tub and soak, but it’s better for baby to get clean and move on with their day.

Efficiency is key to keeping your baby comfortable during their bath. Dr. VanHeyst says to aim to keep your baby’s bath to no more than about five minutes. After that, the water will start to cool off and become uncomfortable for your newborn.

You can help keep your baby warm by keeping them dressed while you gather supplies and prep the tub water. Don’t remove their clothes until it’s go-time.

How often to bathe a newborn

Babies typically don’t need to be bathed more than two or three times per week. Newborns really aren’t that dirty. It’s not like they’re rolling around in mud puddles or working up a sweat in the gym.

That said, babies should be wiped during diaper changes to keep their private parts clean. And a quick sponge-down can get grime out from any rolls in their skin — like under their chin or behind their knees. But a full bath doesn’t need to be a daily ritual.

“Babies shouldn’t be bathed every day. Bath time can be labor intensive for parents, and it sometimes can cause excessive drying to the baby’s skin,” Dr. VanHeyst cautions.

But when they’re due for a bath, be sure to pay attention to temperature and positioning to keep them safe and comfortable. And when you’re done, don’t forget to take a good whiff of that clean-baby smell. Nothing can compare.

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