There are many firsts when it comes to a newborn, and one of those will be bath time. Bathing your baby is an experience many parents treasure. It’s a great time to bond, distraction-free, as your tiny new family member enjoys the sensation of warm water on their skin. Yet this familiar parenting ritual often comes with questions, and sometimes anxiety, about when and how to do it well.
Bathtime can be a tricky business, but don’t stress. Our foolproof guide walks you through how to make the baby’s first bath—and all the ones after—a breeze. Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs.
Until the baby starts getting down and dirty on the ground, a daily bath isn’t needed. Your newborn baby will only really need a bath two or three times a week — at first a sponge bath, until his umbilical cord stump heals (about one to four weeks after birth), then a baby tub bath, and eventually a tub bath when baby can sit up on his own and outgrows the infant tub). There’s nothing cuter than seeing a baby splashing in the tub, soapy suds dotting his heavy folds and dimples.
When to Give Baby’s First Bath
It used to be the norm at hospitals to whisk newborns away right after birth for a bath. Not anymore. Recommendations have shifted in favour of waiting at least a few hours, if not longer, for the baby’s first bath (the World Health Organization recommends a 24-hour delay).
Research indicates that there may be significant physical and emotional benefits to delaying that initial newborn bath. Since young babies are susceptible to cold, it can decrease cold stress. Cold-induced stress can cause the body to work to keep itself warm, which can cause blood sugar levels to drop; studies show delaying the baby’s first bath decreases rates of hypothermia and hypoglycemia. Plus, babies are born with a waxy, cheese-like coating on their skin, called the vernix, which you don’t want to wash off since it helps retain heat and can serve as an additional barrier to infections. In addition, a 2013 study found that delaying the baby’s first bath in the hospital until at least 12 hours after birth led to an increased breastfeeding success rate since mom can nurse more quickly and have more time for skin-to-skin bonding.
The World Health Organization recommends delaying the first bath until at least 24 hours after birth. Others suggest waiting up to 48 hours or more.
Baby’s first bath at home
Once your baby is home, there’s no actual need to bathe daily. Until the umbilical cord is healed, you may stick to sponge baths. Then experts suggest once to twice weekly. Keep the face, hands and genitals clean with regular wipe downs, though. Once they are a little older, you can increase the frequency of baths to make it a routine. Some find it a helpful way to wind down kids before bed.
Once you get your tiny one home, there’s no set timetable for when to give the baby her first sponge bath. Experts agree that the timing for bathing a newborn is up to the parents and that there’s no big rush. Many families are excited about giving a baby their first newborn bath at home, but waiting a few days is fine.
There’s no need to wash them right away in most circumstances. Any blood from the birth can be wiped off, and you need to wipe their diaper areas thoroughly in the meantime. She also made sure to rub the vernix into her baby’s skin to get the most out of its antimicrobial and moisturizing properties.
Here are some reasons why it is now recommended to delay baby’s first bath:
- Body temperature and blood sugar: Babies who get baths right away may be more likely to become cold and develop hypothermia. The minor stress of an early bath can also make some babies more likely to drop blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
- Bonding and breastfeeding: Taking the baby away for a bath too soon can interrupt skin-to-skin care, mother-child bonding, and early breastfeeding success. One study showed a 166% increase in hospital breastfeeding success after implementing a 12-hour delay in the baby’s first bath than those bathed within the first couple of hours.
- Dry skin: Vernix, a waxy white substance that coats a baby’s skin before birth, acts as a natural moisturizer and may have antibacterial properties. Learn more about vernix here. It’s best to leave vernix on a newborns’ skin for a while to help prevent their delicate skin from drying out. This is especially important for preemies, as their skin is highly prone to injury.
Studies have shown many benefits from waiting past the first day or more. One reason is that it allows more time for mother and baby to bond, especially with skin-to-skin contact.
By spending more time with mom and not getting whisked away for a bath, newborns benefit. A delayed newborn bath was associated with an increased likelihood of breastfeeding initiation and with increased in-hospital breastfeeding rates.
And let’s admit it, newborns don’t strictly come out looking clean and ready to snuggle. But that creamy, white coating has a purpose. The vernix, the covering that babies develop in the womb, remains with them longer by holding off on bathing. It was protected from the amniotic fluid, and once delivered, it helps regulate warmth, moisture, and contains antioxidant and antibiotic properties, according to research.
Another big reason to wait on that first bath is that babies are less capable of controlling their body heat than adults. It’s essential to keep them warm, and part of that is not bathing right away. When the time does come, make sure you have enough layers to wrap them up immediately afterwards.
Don’t worry; that newborn smell will come soon enough.
When is my baby ready for a regular bath?
Once the umbilical area is healed, you can try placing your baby directly in the water. His first baths should be as gentle and brief as possible. He may protest a little. (If this happens, go back to sponge baths for a week or two, then try the bath again). Babies usually make it clear when they’re ready.
How to Bathe a Newborn
Bathing a newborn may seem daunting at first, but with a bit of preparation and the proper setup, the baby’s first bath (and those that follow) can be a stress-free, joyful experience. Yes, babies will likely cry, but it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. Looking for baby nursery change mats? Look no further? My Baby Nursery has you covered
Don’t worry about it so much! We were so concerned about how to handle our first baby. She was so tiny! So breakable! And then we watched the nurse give our daughter her first bath in the hospital. You would have thought she was washing dishes! That was the moment where we were like, “Oh… we’re not going to break her.”
Here, we layout step by step what you need to do—and what you need to know—when it comes to bathing a newborn.
Baby bathtub safety tips
Use an infant tub or sink.
You may opt for a hard plastic baby bathtub that has a sloped, textured surface or sling that keeps your baby from sliding. Only use an infant bathtub that meets current safety standards. Some parents find it easiest to bathe a newborn in a bassinette, sink, or plastic tub lined with a clean towel. Yes, a sink! Sometimes easiest is best; be careful. Sinks are slippery and have all sorts of things sticking out, like faucets and handles.
Avoid using bath seats.
These seats provide support so a child can sit upright in an adult bathtub. Unfortunately, they can easily tip over. A child can fall into the bathwater and drown.
Use touch supervision.
Have a towel and other bath supplies within reach so you can keep a hand on your baby at all times. If you’ve forgotten something or need to answer the phone or door during the bath, you must take the baby with you.
Start practising infant water safety now. Never leave a baby alone in the bath, even for an instant. Most child drownings inside the home occur in bathtubs, and more than half of bathtub deaths involve children under one year of age.
Check the water temperature.
Fill the basin with 2 inches of water that feels warm—not hot—to the inside of your wrist or elbow. If you’re filling the bay from the tap, turn the cold water on first (and off last) to avoid scalding yourself or your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that the hottest temperature at the faucet should be no more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit to help avoid burns. In many cases, you can adjust your water heater setting to not go above this temperature. Tap water that’s too hot can quickly cause burns severe enough to require a hospital visit or even surgery. Hot water scalds are the top cause of burns among babies and young children.
Keep the baby warm.
Once you’ve undressed your baby, place her in the water immediately, so she doesn’t get chilled. Use one of your hands to support her head and the other to guide her in, feet first. Talk to her encouragingly, and gently lower the rest of her body until she’s in the tub. Most of her body and face should be well above the water level for safety, so you’ll need to pour warm water over her body frequently to keep her warm.
Use soap sparingly.
Soaps can dry out your baby’s skin. If a cleanser is needed for heavily soiled areas, use only mild, neutral-pH soaps without additives. Rinse the soap from the skin right away. Wash baby’s hair two or three times a week using a mild shampoo or body wash.
You may see some scaly patches on your baby’s scalp called the cradle cap―a harmless condition that appears in many babies. You can loosen the scales with a soft-bristled brush while shampooing in the bathtub, but it’s also okay to leave it alone if it doesn’t bother you. It’s unlikely to worry your baby, and she will outgrow it.
Use a soft cloth to wash your baby’s face and hair, careful not to scrub or tug the skin. Massage her entire scalp gently, including the area over her fontanelles (soft spots). When you rinse the shampoo from her head, cup your hand across her forehead, so the suds run toward the sides, not into her eyes. If some suds do get into her eyes, use the wet washcloth to wipe them with plain, lukewarm water. Wash the rest of her body from the top down.
Have fun in the tub.
If your baby enjoys her bath, give her some extra time to splash and play in the water. The more fun your child has in the bath, the less she’ll be afraid of the water. Bathing should be a very relaxing and soothing experience, so don’t rush unless she’s unhappy.
Young infants don’t need bath toys since just being in the water is usually exciting enough. Once a baby is old enough for the bathtub, however, toys become key. Containers, floating toys, even waterproof books make wonderful distractions as you cleanse your baby.
Get out and dry off.
When bath time is finished, promptly wrap a towel around your baby’s head and body to help her stay warm while she is still wet. Bathing a baby of any age is damp work, so you may want to wear a terry-cloth apron or hang a towel over your shoulder to keep yourself dry. Gently pat baby dries and apply a small amount of fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturizing lotion right after a bath to help prevent dry skin or eczema.
How to sponge bathe a newborn
For the first week or so after birth, you’ll want to give the baby a quick, gentle sponge bath. Here’s how.
Use our handy baby bath supplies checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you need. At a minimum, you’ll want a dry towel, clean diaper, washcloths and baby soap at the ready. “Have all your supplies within arm’s reach, so you don’t have to step away,” Smith advises. Never leave a baby alone in the bath, even for a second.
Pick a place.
Decide where you’ll be giving your baby that newborn bath. While not strictly necessary, baby bathtubs are convenient. They can be placed in the sink or tub, and some have a hammock-style sling that supports the baby’s head. Choose a spot that’s pretty warm and where it’s comfortable for you to kneel or stand while keeping a hand on the baby at all times.
Wash small sections at a time.
After removing her clothes and diaper and placing her in the baby bathtub (or simply on a soft, dry towel), you’ll want to cover the baby with another towel, lifting only a tiny area at a time and patting dry as you go. Using a washcloth dipped in warm water, gently wipe the baby all over, paying particular attention to her diaper area and any creases and rolls.
Benefits of bathtime for babies
Bathing babies has benefits beyond a basic cleanup and a few (okay, dozens of) adorable photo ops. Bathtime:
- Boosts the parent-baby bond. There’s a reason why bathtime quickly becomes a highlight of the day for both of you — it’s time spent together, just the two of you. Taking care of your baby lets him know you care about him. Gaze into his eyes, kiss that yummy baby belly, count those tiny toes, coo sweet nothings, sing silly songs. Feeling your gentle touch and hearing your voice (no matter what you say or sing) will let your little one know how much he’s loved.
- It is a learning experience. Believe it or not, there’s plenty to learn in the tub. Tickle your little one’s senses by trickling water gently onto his tummy — he’ll probably giggle with pleasure. Pour a little water near him (his wide-eyed gaze will let you know he’s captivated), or teach him a lesson in cause-and-effect by showing him how to kick the water and create a splash. Always watch to be sure he’s happy and enjoying what you’re doing. Don’t forget a play-by-play as you wash him — name his minor body parts as you suds them. He’ll be learning a tub-full of words before you know it!
- Soothes fussy babies. You probably already know this from your own bathtime experience, but nothing’s more calming and comforting than a soak in a tub after a long day. Up the relaxation even more by trying your hand at infant massage afterwards. While most little ones love it, if your baby balks (he fusses or turns his head), don’t sweat it — cuddle instead. Pretty soon, you’ll figure out what works best.
- Induces sleep. There’s even more reason to love bathing your little one — especially if you add it to your baby’s bedtime routine. The warm water, the warm room and the warm feeling of being safe, secure and loved work magic and will put your baby in the mood to sleep.
- If your baby’s umbilical cord stump is still intact, or if a circumcised newborn’s penis hasn’t healed, avoid tub baths altogether and use your hands or a baby washcloth for cleanups. When your baby is ready to give it a go, find a flat surface — bathroom or kitchen counter, bed, even the floor, and keep washing up gentle and brief until he gets used to it.
Yes, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to the baby’s first bath. But soon enough, bathing a newborn will become second nature, and before you know it, your child will be sitting up on his own and splashing away in the tub. That’s when things start to get fun! My Baby Nursery is your one-stop baby product store.