A Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful First Baby Bath

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So, maybe you watched closely as your baby had its first sponge bath in the hospital, but more than likely, you forgot to take notes. So now you are at home, staring at your precious little one after a spit-up or blow-out diaper, not remembering the first thing about how to get them clean. Take a deep breath. The Pulse has a step-by-step guide to help your baby’s first bath be a success.

When Is The Right Time For Baby’s First Bath?

  • Doctors recommended that you wait at least 24 hours after birth before bathing your newborn. Why? The white, moisturizing vernix caseosa your baby was born with actually helps to:
    • Keep your baby warm
    • Prevent skin infections
    • Promote healthy skin growth

Instead, focus the first few hours of your newborn’s life on staying skin-to-skin and trying to figure out breastfeeding for the first time.

  • Choose sponge baths over immersion or tub baths (when your baby’s body is submerged underwater) until Baby’s umbilical cord falls off, which can take up to a week after birth.
  • Wait at least 24 hours after circumcision to give your baby boy an immersion bath.
  • If you have just fed your baby, wait half an hour or so before bathing to let his stomach settle and avoid bath-time spit-up.

What Are the Right Tools for the Job?

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you can safely bathe newborns and younger babies and infants in a sink or shallow plastic basin. There are countless baby bathtubs for you to choose from, but the main point is that your full-size family tub is too big and unsafe for your newborn. Some parents select bathtub inserts or slanted baby tubs with adjustable hammocks to help keep Baby upright with head and shoulders above water. Even in special baby tubs, you should keep one hand on your baby at all times for safety’s sake.
  • All soap, shampoo, and moisturizing products should be baby-specific or designed for sensitive skin.
  • Shampoos and soaps should be tear-free to avoid stinging baby’s eyes.
  • Avoid products with fragrances.
  • Read ingredients to skip products with harsh chemicals such as parabens, phthalates and sulfates.
  • Towels with hoods help trap extra heat lost through baby’s exposed scalp and prevent your child from becoming chilled while you wrestle them into a diaper and clothes.

Preparing For A Sponge Bath

For a sponge bath (if your baby still has the stump of their umbilical cord), you can lay your baby on a flat, dry surface such as a counter, changing table, or floor, covered with a blanket. Then, you will clean your baby with a sponge or washcloth without putting them in water or a bath.  For the sponge bath you will need:

  • Two washcloths or sponges
  • A bowl of warm water
  • Cotton balls
  • Baby shampoo or mild soap (see below)
  • A towel
  • A clean diaper and change of clothes.

Step-By-Step Guide to a Sponge Bath

  1. Wash your baby’s face before undressing them because babies don’t like to be cold or naked. Who does, really? Dampen a cotton ball or a washcloth, and wipe their eyelids from the inside corner out. Use one cotton ball for each eye. With another damp cotton ball, clean around their nose. You don’t need to use soap on their face.
  2. If your newborn has hair and it needs to be washed you can shampoo it.
  3. Next undress your baby and lie them flat.
  4. Put a small amount of baby soap onto one of the washcloths. Wash their neck, then work your way down the front of their body. Make sure to clean between any folds of skin.
  5. Rinse the soap off with a second damp cloth. Dip the second washcloth in the sink or bowl of warm water, but don’t soak it to minimize drips that might startle your baby as you wash away the soapy residue from the first washcloth.
  6. Towel off any moisture left on your baby’s skin on the front side before moving on to the backside. Try to dry and cover with a towel the areas you just washed to keep your baby as warm as possible.
  7. Don’t wash the umbilical stump, and try to keep it dry.
  8. Flip your baby over onto their belly with their head turned to one side. Repeat the washing, rinsing, and drying. Wash their bottom and genitals last. If your son is uncircumcised, don’t try to push back the foreskin.
  9. Not all newborns will need lotion after a bath. Talk to your pediatrician if you are worried your baby has dry skin, and make sure to choose a baby-specific formula free of irritants, fragrances, and chemicals.

The Step by Step Guide For The Immersion Tub Bath

So you said goodbye to the shriveled umbilical cord, and now you are ready for the next milestone in your baby’s short life- their first tub bath! Here are the steps to follow to make sure bath time becomes everyone’s favorite time of day:

  1. Assemble all of your tools (see above)
  2. Turn off your phone or put it out of sight to avoid getting distracted.
  3. Fill your bathtub or sink with warm, not hot water and test with the inside of your arm. Fill the basin or sink with at least 2 inches of water or enough to cover up to their shoulders.
  4. Take off your baby’s clothing and wrap them in a blanket to keep them warm while you check the water temperature again.
  5. Unwrap your baby from the blanket and slowly ease them into the water, unless you are giving them a swaddle bath (link). Talk or sing to them in a calm and reassuring voice to help soothe them as they enter the water.
  6. Support your baby at all times, always keeping one hand on them.
  7. Start by washing your baby’s face and then move down to dirtier areas.
  8. To wash baby’s face, wet a washcloth, wring out excess water and wipe your baby’s face. Wipe each eyelid from the inside to the outside corner.
  9. Move from head to toes, starting at your baby’s neck and progressing down their belly, legs, toes, and between their legs. Make sure to clean between the folds of skin around the baby’s neck, underarms, between their legs, and between their toes with a washcloth or sponge.
  10. If your newborn has hair or a head that needs washing, save it until the end of the bath to help keep them. Then, gently massage a drop of mild baby shampoo into your baby’s scalp with your free hand. Next, rinse out the shampoo with a cup of water or a damp washcloth, cupping one hand across your baby’s forehead to keep suds out of their eyes.
  11. Carefully scoop your baby out of the tub, wrapping them in a hooded dry towel and carrying them with two hands to their changing area. Be sure to dry off all extra moisture, especially in the skin folds and creases.
  12. Apply lotion before dressing your baby if they need it, only to the dry areas. Massaging in the lotion can help further calm and soothe your baby. If you notice worsening dryness, you might be bathing your baby too often.

Secrets for a Successful, Safe First Bath

  • Gather all your supplies near your bath area ahead of time.
  • Put your phone out of sight so that you don’t get distracted while bathing your baby. If you want to take pictures of baby’s first bath, have your partner or friend be your photographer.
  • NEVER leave your baby alone in the tub. Children can drown in 1 or 2 inches of water. Don’t turn your back even for a moment or leave your baby in the care of another child.
  • The bath should only last about 5 to 10 minutes; otherwise, Baby will get chilled.
  • To prevent scalding, check that your water heater’s thermostat is set to below 120 F (49 C).
  • Bathwater should be between 99.9 and 103.9 degrees Fahrenheit, or comfortably warm — not hot. The water should feel comfortable to the inside of your arm.
  • Focus on cleaning your baby’s dirtiest parts- the diaper area, face and neck.
  • Don’t clean inside the ears; using a swab could puncture their ear. Instead, you can use a damp washcloth to wipe the outside of their ears if needed.
  • Support your baby (and their head) throughout the bath.
  • Remember that your baby may not enjoy their first bath, no matter how closely you follow this step-by-step guide. They may cry throughout the bath. That is ok. Try to maintain eye contact, comfort them with your voice, and by supporting them with your hand.

First Bath Was A Success, How Often Should I Bathe My Baby?

Newborns do not require frequent bathing; once a week is usually good enough. If you bathe your baby too often, you may dry out their skin. As your newborn grows up, three times a week is a good ballpark range. Once your little one becomes more mobile, they may need more frequent baths. By that time, you will be a tubby-time expert after following The Pulse’s step-by-step guide for a successful first bath. Before long, your child will learn to love this bathing ritual and the one-on-one time with you.

Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a certified nurse-midwife with a Master's Degree in Maternal and Child Health from Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Her passions are health literacy and women's reproductive health. A recent two-year sabbatical with her family in Spain was the impetus for becoming a freelance women's health writer. An exercise nut, she is happiest outdoors and on adventures abroad.

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