Bathing Baby Techniques
There are many different techniques for bathing baby and making bath time enjoyable and effective for both your baby and you. For most newborns, bath time is actually more like more playtime as they do not get very dirty (barring any “accidents”). It is exactly for this reason that many new parents ask: “How often should I bathe my newborn?” and “When should I give my baby their first bath?”
Bathing Baby for the First Time
When to orchestrate your baby’s first bath is a matter of some debate. Our recommendation, and what is still considered general practice, is giving your baby sponge baths until the umbilical cord falls off and the circumcision heals. Some physicians question the necessity of this advice, feeling that immersion bathing often does not increase the risk of infection. Make sure to check with your doctor for advice specific to your baby’s situation.
We advise sponge bathing a baby if there is discharge around the base of the cord or the circumcision site or if a putrid odor emanates from the cord. If both sites are reasonably clean and dry, we see no harm in going directly to an immersion bath.
Learning how to bathe a newborn properly takes some practice. Below we have included recommended sponge bath and immersion bath (or tub bathing) techniques for babies of all ages, with additional details for parents of newborns.
1. How to Sponge Bathe a Newborn Step by Step
Select a warm and draft-free area. Try in the kitchen or on a bathroom counter. It should be somewhere next to a sink. Put your phone on silent so that you will not be tempted to leave your baby unattended “just for a moment.”
Have your newborn sponge bath kit ready in the bathing area before you start. You will need:
- Two washcloths
- A mild soap
- Baby shampoo
- Cotton balls
- A hooded towel
- Rubbing alcohol
- Cotton-tip applicators
- Clean clothes
While some babies like to be bare, most don’t, so remove all clothing except the diaper and swaddle your baby in a towel. Hold your baby on your lap while sitting in a chair with your bath kit on an adjacent table, or stand up at the counter with baby lying on a pad of thick towels.
Keep your swaddled baby’s head and face exposed. Begin washing her face carefully with the washcloth, using warm water, and making sure to wash behind the ears, in the ear crevices, and the neck creases. Unless your baby’s skin is sweaty, oily, or dirty, plain water is enough; otherwise, it is okay to use a mild soap on your newborn.
It is best to hold your baby in the clutch hold and then squeeze a bit of warm water on top of your baby’s head, apply a dab of baby shampoo, and gently massage the entire scalp. Use no special caution over the soft spot. It’s really tough underneath. (If a baby’s scalp is flaky or crusty, see cradle cap.)
Now, rinse the top of your baby’s head in the sink with running water and then blot her head dry with a towel hood. Make sure to keep her swaddled in a towel, with only her head and face exposed to prevent her from getting cold. As you proceed with the rest of the body, cover your baby’s head with a towel hood.
Unwrap your swaddled baby, remove his diaper, and wash the rest of his body. Extend his arms and legs to wash his groin, knee, and elbow creases, where there are likely to be oily collections. Clean around the base of his umbilical cord with a cotton-tipped applicator dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Finally, turn your baby over on his tummy and clean the crevice just above his buttocks and around the diaper area. Or, you can lift both feet and clean the lower back and buttocks while your baby is lying on his back. To keep him from getting cold and upset, cover the rest of his body while cleaning the diaper area.
How to Clean A Baby Girl’s Private Parts
Spread the labia, and using a moistened cotton ball, gently wipe between the labia. When cleaning around the vagina, always wipe from front to back. You may notice that secretions and diaper creams collect and cake between the vulva and the outer labia. This area requires the most cleansing.
For a newborn baby girl, white discharge is common between the inner labia and vagina of newborn baby girls. It is not necessary to clean away this normal discharge.
How to Clean A Baby Boy’s Private Parts
Clean the creases beneath the scrotum, the skin of the groin and buttock, and around the base of the penis. Clean the circumcision area, if necessary. Do not retract the foreskin if uncircumcised.
2. How to Give a Baby a Tub Bath
After the sponge bath stage, the real fun begins. First, choose the right tub that’s safe and easy to use. There are many types of baby tubs on the market, or you can simply use the kitchen sink. The kitchen sink is easy to use because it is the right height. If using the kitchen sink, observe the following safety tips:
- Purchase an insert-type plastic or rubber tub that fits into your sink, or line the bottom of the sink with a folded towel or sponge mat to keep your baby from slipping.
- If you have a movable faucet, be sure to turn it away from your baby.
Before the water touches your baby, make sure it is comfortably warm but not too hot. Tie a towel around your neck (like a bib) to keep yourself dry during the bath, and in case your baby needs to be picked up quickly and cuddled. Most newborns do not eagerly await their bath. Singing a few songs, making eye-to-eye contact, and gently massaging your baby during the bath often relaxes the reluctant bather.
Additional Newborn Bath Tips
- As you move from one area of the body to another, change the washcloth parts to keep the clean cloth on cleaner parts of the body.
- Pat the skin with a washcloth and blot dry with a towel rather than vigorously scrubbing, which may irritate your bathing baby’s sensitive skin.
- Spot-cleaning works best for babies who do not like either a total sponge bath or an immersion bath. Clean the areas that get the oiliest, sweaty, or dirty.
- Clean the eyes on an as-needed basis rather than during the regular bath. Infants often protest eye cleaning, which may set off a protest for the entire bath. Using cotton balls and warm tap water (always squeeze a few drops of the water from the cotton ball on the inside of your wrist to make sure it is not too hot), wash accumulated discharge out of the corners of your baby’s eyes.
- Cotton-tipped applicators are handy when cleaning little crevices in and behind the outer ear, but never try to clean inside the ear canal, as you may damage the canal or eardrum.
FAQ’S: Bathing Baby
How often should we bathe our baby?
Bath time is primarily playtime. Babies don’t get dirty enough to need a daily bath. For busy parents, this is good news. Some doctors recommend as many as three times per week, but we believe less is more when it comes to a baby’s skin. Two times per week (especially in the winter) is enough, provided you clean your baby’s diaper area sufficiently well each time there is a bowel movement.
Daily spot-cleaning in areas that get particularly sweaty, oily, or dirty, such as behind the ears, in the neck folds, in the groin’s creases, and the diaper area, can help between washes.
Which soap and shampoo should I use for my bathing baby?
Baby’s skin, especially a newborn’s, is sensitive, and all soaps are mild irritants. The function of soap is to suspend particles and oils on the skin surface so that they can be more easily removed from the skin with water. Without soap, some oils, dirt, and surface secretions would simply stick to the skin and require vigorous rubbing with a cloth and water to remove them, which in itself would irritate the skin.
Every baby’s skin has an individual tolerance to different soaps. How much soap, how often, and which kind can be determined only by trial and error.
- Use soap only on areas that are caked with secretions (such as oil or sweat), which are not easily removed with plain water.
- When first using soap, try a test rub on one small part of the body. If over the next few hours the skin reddens, dries, or noticeably changes in any way relative to other areas, ban that soap and try another.
- Use mild soap. Baby soaps are regular soaps with fewer additives such as antimicrobial, fragrances, or abrasives. In our practice, we have found Dove baby soap acceptable for the skin of most babies.
- Limit the soap’s time on the skin to less than five minutes to avoid drying or irritating the skin. Wash it off as soon as possible and rinse the skin well.
- Above all, avoid vigorous scrubbing of any area of the skin with soap.
Eczema and other skin conditions
If your baby is prone to eczema or has allergic dermatitis, use as little soap as possible, and give as few baths as possible. A special soap formulation prescribed by a dermatologist may be helpful. Babies with particularly sensitive skin should spend very little time in a bathtub immersed in water and are best showered and spot cleaned.
Shampoos are similar to soaps and, if overused, can irritate the scalp and rob the hair of natural oils. Shampooing once a week is enough for most babies. Use mild baby shampoo; like baby soaps, baby shampoos contain fewer additives than other commercial shampoos. It is seldom necessary to massage shampoo deep into the scalp. If your baby’s scalp is covered with a flaky, crusty, oily substance called cradle cap, after shampooing, massage a bit of vegetable oil into the crust to soften it, then remove it with a soft comb.
Here is a final thought about soaps and shampoos that many mothers have expressed to me over the years. Too much soap and shampoo (and scented oils and powders) can camouflage natural baby scents that mothers find irresistible. Also, it is better not to mask the mother’s natural scent, which a baby needs, and perfumes are irritating to some babies.
Should I use powders and oils on our baby’s skin?
Gone are the days when a baby was sprinkled with perfumed talcum after every bath. Powders and oils are unnecessary since your baby’s skin is naturally rich in body oil, and they may be irritating and even harmful.
Emollients, such as cold-pressed vegetable oil or HPA Lanolin by Lansinoh, which is actually a good nipple cream for breastfeeding, may be used only on patchy dry skin areas; otherwise, they are unnecessary.
Powders easily cake and build up in skin creases and can actually contribute to skin irritation and rashes. Recently there have been safety concerns regarding the use of certain powders. Also, powders, if inhaled, can irritate your baby’s nasal and air passages. Cornstarch is not recommended as it can serve as a medium for the growth of harmful fungi.
My baby screams every time I try to give her a bath. How can we both enjoy bath time more?
– If your baby screams every time you try to put them into the water, it either means that they are hungry, the water is too hot or cold, or you have a baby who doesn’t like to be alone in the water. They may feel their security is being threatened.
Here’s how to calm an infant during a bath:
Take your baby into the bathtub with you. Get the water ready and undress yourself and your baby. Hold them close to you as you get into the water, and then sit back and enjoy the warm skin-to-skin contact. If your baby still protests, sit in the tub first and show them how much you are enjoying the bath. Then have someone else hand your baby to you while you are sitting in the bathtub.
Mothers – don’t be surprised if your baby wants to breastfeed at this time. It is the natural result of being close to your breast. In fact, if your baby still fusses upon entering the water in your arms, relax them by putting them to your breast first.
Slowly ease your way into the tub. Then gradually lower your baby into the water as they continue to suck. This is a special way to enjoy both mothering and bathing your baby. As your baby gets older, bath toys such as the traditional rubber ducky may entice the reluctant bath taker.
It is important to make sure when bathing together in a tub, to take special precautions to avoid slipping.
While you get used to a baby in the tub with you, it is safer to hand your baby to another person or place them on a towel as you get out of the tub.
Another Sears’ family trick for enticing the reluctant bather is getting your baby to associate bath time with a pleasant event to follow. After the bath, you should spend some special cuddle time together. Or, follow the bath with a soothing massage. Your baby will soon develop an association between the bath as the wet stage to put up with in order to get the total body massage. (See Baby Massage.)
-Over the years, we have bathed a lot of babies. There is no right or wrong way to bathe a baby; pick a way that works for you with the minimum amount of hassle. We have learned to think of bath time as more of a fun parenting ritual than a cleaning regimen; that way, the pressure is off if we miss a crevice.
Enjoy your time with your baby, and make bathing just another ritual for getting in touch with your infant.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.