How to Bathe a Baby

Cute baby in baby bath.
Bathing your baby can be an enjoyable bonding activity.
Š DeLeon

Giving your baby a bath for the first time can be a scary prospect -- how do you handle such a fragile little body when it gets wet and slippery? How often do babies even need a bath? And what if your baby is scared of the water? These are all valid concerns, but bathing your baby can be a simple, enjoyable activity.

First, relax -- many experts believe that babies can pick up on their parents' moods, so it's important to remain calm when it's time for a bath. It might ease your mind to know that babies don't need to be bathed all that often, pediatricians say [source: Johnson & Johnson]. Two or three baths a week should be enough, as long as you're cleaning your baby's face and hands after feedings and the genital area after diaper changes.


It might also be reassuring to know that for the first few weeks, a "real" tub bath isn't even necessary. In fact, until your baby's umbilical cord detaches and -- if applicable -- your baby's circumcision is healed, tub baths are actually not recommended [source: WebMD]. This means you'll start with sponge baths and gradually ease into baths in a tub, which will make the bathing process easier for both you and your baby.

As for timing, bathe your baby whenever it's convenient for you and most enjoyable for your baby. If baths seem to relax your baby, try it at night as part of your baby's bedtime routine. If not, try to work bath time in right before a feeding, since baths too soon after feeding might make your baby more likely to spit up [source: Johnson & Johnson]. Don't be afraid to experiment a bit to find a routine that works.

With a little preparation, bath time can be a great experience for both you and your baby. Read on to see why multiple washcloths are a must on your list of things to gather up when preparing for bath time.


Preparing to Bathe Your Baby

Planning ahead is especially crucial when it comes to giving your baby a bath. Your baby will require your undivided attention during the entire bath -- never leave your baby unattended in the water for even a moment. If you have to answer the phone or check the stove, wrap your baby in a towel and bring him with you. This constant supervision means you'll need to plan ahead and save yourself the hassle of having to move your baby constantly.

So what exactly will you need to prepare? The most important thing is to have all your supplies close by during the bath. You will need the following items:


  • Baby tub or basin -- even if you wash your baby in the sink, you'll want a clean container that's the right size for your baby.
  • Several clean washcloths -- you'll probably want at least three: one for washing with only water, one for washing with soap and one for rinsing.
  • Several clean towels
  • Mild, baby-friendly soap -- don't use strong, heavily fragranced soap or shampoo on a baby because the ingredients are typically too harsh for a baby's fragile skin and could cause irritation or dryness.
  • Sterile cotton balls or squares -- you'll need these for cleaning your baby's eyes and nose.
  • Rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide -- some experts recommend using it to clean the area around the umbilical cord until it detaches [source: WebMD].
  • Changing pad
  • New diaper and clean clothing

Arrange the items in a way that's convenient for you. The important thing is that everything you need is within arm's reach, since you always need to keep at least one hand on your baby. Read on to find out what to do next once your supplies are lined up and ready to go.


Baby Bath Water Depth and Temperature

Once you have your supplies handy, it's time to let the bath begin! In your baby's first few weeks, only a sponge bath will be necessary. But once you move to the tub, there are several factors to consider.

One of the most important factors in your baby's bath is water temperature, so you should make sure to turn down your water heater. Most water heaters come preset from the manufacturers at 140 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (60 to 66 degrees Celsius), which can give a baby's sensitive skin third-degree burns within seconds. To prevent accidental scalding, make sure you set the water heater to only 120 degrees Fahrenheit (about 49 degrees Celsius) [source: WebMD].


Even after you've adjusted your water heater, you should still be very mindful of water temperature every time you get ready for baby's bath. Test the water with your elbow or back of your hand to make sure it feels lukewarm. Once your baby is in the tub, continue to check the temperature to make sure it doesn't get too chilly. But never run the water while the baby is in the tub -- you don't want the water to get too hot or too deep.

As far as the depth of water is concerned, fill the tub with only 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7 centimeters) of water. Babies can drown in less than an inch of water, so be very conscious of the amount of water you use [source: WebMD].

So once you have the right amount of water at the right temperature, what's next? Read on to learn how exactly to handle your baby in the bath without slipping.


Handling Your Baby in the Bath

When it's time to actually put your baby in the bath, you might be a bit nervous -- especially while you get used to how slippery a wet baby can be! But handling your baby is probably not as difficult as you might imagine. Some babies very much enjoy baths and become very relaxed, and others might not like baths and will squirm or fuss. It will take some adjusting for both you and your baby, so just be patient, and find the holding technique that works best for both of you.

During the first few weeks, while you're giving your baby a sponge bath, the key is to go in stages. As you undress your baby, support the head and torso with one arm and hand. Continue this support throughout the sponge bath as you wash his body. When it's time to wash the hair -- which should be near the end of the bath -- adjust your support so that you can tip your baby's head back to avoid getting water in his eyes.


When it's time to start giving your baby a tub bath, there are some extra tips to keep in mind -- after all, it can be a bit more tricky to handle a wet, partially submerged baby than one lying on a dry surface. While lowering your baby into the tub -- and while lifting your baby out when bath time is over -- use one hand to support your baby's bottom and legs and the other hand to support his neck and head. As you bathe your baby, gently and consistently pour water over his body so he doesn't get too chilly.

Just remember to always keep at least one hand on your baby at all times. Even if you eventually use supplies such as a bath ring or bath seat, it's important that you always support your baby with one hand while washing with the other.

Now that you're ready to handle your baby, read on to find out more about different methods of bathing your baby.


Baby Washing Methods

Though there are lots of different methods for bathing your baby, it's important to go with what works best for you. Focus on being safe and efficient, follow these basics, and from there, it's really up to you.

Sponge baths are relatively straightforward. Undress your baby in stages, removing the clothing over each area as you go, or else completely undress him, and keep him covered with a towel throughout the bath. Either way, leave the diaper on until the very end to prevent accidents.


Wash one area at a time, starting with the face and moving down the body. On your baby's face, use a wet washcloth (no soap!) and damp cotton balls to clean the eyes, moving from inner corner to outer corner [source: Springhill Medical Center]. For baby's body, add soap to the washcloth and wash from the neck moving down. Wash the genital area after you've washed the rest of the body. Use another wet washcloth to rinse each area after you've washed it, and dry each area as you go. Wash your baby's hair last, using just water or a mild shampoo designed for babies, and then rinse using your hand to pour water over his head.

When your baby's umbilical cord heals, it's time for tub baths. Tub baths follow the same process, but your baby will actually be in the water, which can be nerve-wracking. Just keep the first few tub baths quick, and it shouldn't be a rough transition. After you've filled the tub, lower your baby feet-first into the tub, always supporting his head and neck. Follow the same cleansing process you used during sponge baths: Start with the face and work your way down the body, finishing by washing his hair. Keep your baby warm by pouring water over him body regularly. When bath time is over, lift him out of the tub the same way you lowered him in, and wrap him in a towel.

But bath time is not quite over once your baby is nice and clean. Read on to find out how to dry and take care of your baby post-bath.


Drying Your Baby

After the bath itself is complete, it's time to dry your baby. During the first few weeks, while you're still giving your baby sponge baths, dry each area of the body right after you wash and rinse it before you move on to wash the next area. And use a towel to cover up the parts that aren't being washed. That way, your baby won't get too cold during the bathing process.

When it's time for your baby to start taking tub baths, immediate drying is still just as important. Babies lose heat quickly -- especially through their heads -- so it's important to wrap your baby in a towel as soon as bath time is over. You may want to use a hooded towel for added warmth around your baby's head.


As for actual methods of drying, make sure you gently pat your baby dry instead of rubbing, since rubbing can irritate your baby's skin [source: WebMD]. And be sure to thoroughly dry any folds in your baby's skin, especially around the neck and legs, since trapped moisture can cause irritation [source: Johnson & Johnson].

After you've thoroughly yet gently dried your baby, dress him quickly with a clean diaper and clean clothes. Until the umbilical cord stump detaches, be careful not to cover the cord area.

Remember that bath time can be not only part of an important hygiene routine but also a great bonding time for you and your baby. Just make sure you're prepared -- you'll stay calm and relaxed, and your baby will feel that way, too. For more information about how to bathe your baby, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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