How to Give Your Baby a Bath
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Giving a baby a bath doesn’t seem like it would be hard…but like so many things parenting, knowing how and when to give Baby a bath is confusing! And it’s not just well-meaning family members and social media offering outdated or conflicting bath time tips. A recent nationwide survey found that hospitals dole out an absolute mishmash of bathing advice, too. For example, researchers found that guidance on whether to use soap when washing your baby was both inconsistent and “potentially contradictory.” Yikes. But here’s the thing: Bathing your baby doesn’t have to be so fraught with anxiety and confusion! We break down everything you need to know to keep your little one clean and safe.
When to Bathe a Newborn
Some parents think that they need to give their baby a bath right after birth. After all, things can get pretty messy during delivery! Beyond the blood, mucus, and amniotic fluid, newborns are also covered in a waxy white substance called vernix caseosa. (More on that below.) But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s best to delay Baby’s first bath until 24 hours after birth—or wait at least six hours if holding off longer is impossible thanks to cultural reasons. Research shows that 87% of hospitals follow this advice and delay Baby’s first bath by at least six hours. That’s great news, since putting off Baby’s first bath helps to fend off hypothermia, prevents drying out Baby’s delicate skin, promotes skin-to-skin care, and bolsters early breastfeeding success, notes the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Plus, a 2020 report found that delaying the first bath may even reduce vigorous crying in newborns. The only exception to the wait-to-bathe rule: Babies whose moms are HIV-positive or have hepatitis should be bathed after the initial breastfeed (if nursing) to decrease risk to hospital staff and family members.
What is vernix?
Vernix caseosa (or vernix, for short) is a thick, waxy white substance that covers your baby in utero to protect their delicate skin from the watery womb. Just imagine if you were in a bathtub for nine months! Made of 80.5% water, 10.3% lipids, and 9.1% protein, vernix also acts as a lubricant, helping your baby slide more easily down the birth canal during delivery. Vernix offers antimicrobial benefits after birth, too. Scientists now know that vernix helps to prevent infection and retain heat following birth. While your little one will shed most of that cream cheese-looking layer before birth, some vernix will remain. Preemies, on the other hand, are often born coated with vernix. (Learn more about vernix.)
Baby’s First Bath
Baby’s first bath should be a sponge bath. In fact, this is how you should bathe your newborn until their umbilical cord stump falls off and heals, which is usually within 15 days after birth. (Don’t hurry the process! It’s important that you resist the urge to pull off the stump, even if it’s dangling! Simply let the stump fall off naturally.) During a sponge bath, your baby’s body is not submerged—even partially—in a tub of water. Instead, make sure the room where you are bathing your newborn is about 75 degrees Fahrenheit without drafts, cover your baby’s umbilical cord stump with gauze, and then follow these steps to give your baby their first bath:
Gather supplies. Grab washcloths, a mild and fragrance-free baby cleanser and shampoo, and two dry towels. One towel is to wrap your baby in and the second is to pad a hard surface you may be bathing your baby on.
Get bath water ready. Fill a bowl of lukewarm water.
Wrap your naked baby in a towel. Then lay your little one down on a comfortable, flat surface, like a changing table or the floor. Make sure you always keep at least one hand on your bub. (Learn more bath safety tips.)
Dip the washcloth into the bowl of water. And gently wipe your baby’s face and ears. Using the same cloth—or a moistened cotton ball—clean Baby’s eyes, starting at the bridge of their nose then wipe out to the corner of their eye. (At this point, no baby cleanser is needed.)
Consider a baby cleanser. If desired, add some fragrance- and dye-free hypoallergenic baby cleanser into the bowl of water or the washcloth and begin cleaning your baby’s neck, paying special attention to all their skin folds. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), you really only need to apply soap to dirty areas, such as neck creases and the diaper area.
Rinse soap after cleaning each baby area.
Unwrap Baby, bit by bit. When ready, expose the part of your baby’s body that you’ll wash next while the rest of your baby remains covered in a towel. Make sure to rinse off the soap after cleaning each area. (The diaper area should be cleaned last.)
Keep the stump dry. Avoid getting your little one’s umbilical cord stump wet.
Re-wrap your baby. Once you are done washing your baby’s body, wrap your clean bub back up in a warm towel before washing their scalp/hair.
Wash Baby’s hair. Wet your baby’s head by gently pouring water over their scalp, being very careful not to let water run into their eyes. Next, squeeze a pea-size amount of baby shampoo on your bub’s hair and carefully rub it in a circular motion, then rinse out the shampoo with your hands.
Dry Baby’s hair. Pat your baby’s hair dry and, if needed, comb their hair with a soft baby brush. (An infant hairbrush can help clear cradle cap, too.)
Use moisturizer. If your baby’s skin appears dry after bathing, apply a fragrance-free moisturizer to your bub’s skin 10-minutes after bathtime. (According to a 2023 report, this is the ideal timing.) Also, consider bathing your baby less frequently if dry skin is a recurring issue.
How often should I give Baby a bath?
As long as your little one’s diaper area is completely cleaned during every change, you’ll only need to give your baby a bath two to three times a week once you’re home from the hospital, notes the AAD.
When is Baby ready for a regular bath?
You’re ready to start offering your baby traditional baths once their umbilical cord stump has completely fallen off and healed, which generally happens at about 2 weeks old. (If the stump is still hanging on at 2 months old, talk to your baby’s pediatrician.) But remember, just because your baby is “ready” for a traditional bath, doesn’t mean they’ll love it! if your little one fusses and cries getting a regular bath, feel free to revert to sponge baths for a bit longer.
How do I bathe my baby in a tub?
While some parents opt for bath seats, the AAP warns that they can easily tip over and should be avoided. Instead, use a plastic baby bathtub featuring a sloped, textured surface (or sling) that keeps your baby from sliding. While the good ol kitchen sink is always an option, they’re slippery and have obstacles like a protruding faucet, so be very careful! (Lining the sink or a baby bath with a clean towel can help sidestep slipperiness.) Here, more tips on how to safely wash your baby in a tub:
Keep the room draft-free. Make sure it’s warm enough for a wet naked baby not to catch a chill. (Shoot for about 75 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Gather your supplies. Get a washcloth, a mild and fragrance-free baby cleanser and shampoo, a small cup, and a dry towel.
Fill the baby tub or sink. Roughly two inches of lukewarm water is plenty. Make sure the water feels warm to the inside of your wrist or elbow. (If you are using a thermometer, aim for bath water to be around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Hold your baby this Once your little one is naked, use one hand to support their head and another to guide them into the water, feet first. (Because most of your baby’s body will be out of the water, you’ll need to regularly pour warm water over their body to keep them warm.) Never take your hand off your baby!
Skip the cleanser for Baby’s face. Gently clean your baby’s face without a baby cleanser. (Follow the same directions as the sponge bath.)
Gently wash Baby’s body. From the neck down, wash your baby with a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser, making sure to clean all your baby’s folds and rinse soap off as you go. (Clean your baby’s diaper area last.)
Keep a warm towel handy. If your baby is getting chilly, feel free to wrap them up in a warm towel before tackling their scalp and hair.
Wash Baby’s hair. Gently wet your baby’s scalp with water (avoiding their eyes), then massage a pea-size amount of baby shampoo on your little one’s scalp and hair. When rinsing out shampoo, cup your hand across your baby’s forehead to prevent soap from running into their face.
Dry your baby off. All done? Swiftly wrap a snuggly towel around your baby’s head and body and gently pat them dry. Once dry, consider applying a small amount of fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturizing lotion if your baby’s skin appears dry. (Bathing Baby less often can help dry skin, as well.)
How do I bathe a baby with eczema?
If your baby has been diagnosed with eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis), marked by patches of dry, itchy skin, reach out to your pediatrician and/or pediatric dermatologist for guidance. (Learn more about caring for your baby’s eczema.) They’ll likely advise the following:
Offer 5- to 10-minute lukewarm baths daily or every other day. (Too-warm water—and too-long baths—can inflame Baby’s eczema symptoms.)
Use only a gentle, soap-, fragrance-, and dye-free hypoallergenic baby cleanser on dirty areas, like hands, feet, the folds of Baby’s neck, and the diaper area. Plain water is A-okay for the rest of your baby’s body.
Rinse baby cleanser off your baby as you go.
Apply a moisturizer to your little one’s body post-bath, while their skin is still damp. An ointment, like petroleum jelly or a fragrance-free moisturizing cream are both good picks. Lotions are too thin and less effective. (Moisturize your baby’s delicate skin about twice a day.)
It’s also smart to dress your baby in soft, natural fabrics like 100% organic cotton and to use only mild, fragrance-free laundry detergents.
More on caring for your baby and their delicate skin:
- What Parents Need to Know About Contact Dermatitis
- Caring for Baby’s Soft Spot
- Diaper Rashes 101
- How to Trim Your Baby's Nails
- Variation in Newborn Skincare Policies Across United States Maternity Hospitals, Hospital Pediatrics, September 2021
- World Health Organization: WHO recommendations on newborn health: guidelines approved by the WHO Guidelines Review Committee
- University of Virginia: Study Reveals Confusing Mishmash of Newborn Bathing Practices at US Hospitals
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Bathing Your Baby
- Newborn’s first bath: any preferred timing? A pilot study from Lebanon. BMC Research Notes. September 2020
- National Library of Medicine, Stat Pearls: Vernix Caseosa
- MedlinePlus: Umbilical cord care in newborn
- University Hospitals: Best Tips for Giving Your Newborn Baby a Bath
- American Academy of Dermatology Association: How to Bathe Your Newborn
- American Academy of Dermatology Association: How to Care for Your Baby’s Skin, Hair, and Nails
- Timing of Post-Bath Moisturizer Application to Newborn Infants: A Randomized Controlled Study. Advances in Skin & Wound Care. January 2023
- Mayo Clinic: Baby bath basics: A parent's guide
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.