How to Give Your Baby Their First Bath

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Rub-a-dub-dub, they’re not quite ready for the tub!

By Rebecca Rakowitz

Medical Expert: Daniel J. Armbrust, DO 

OK, so it might not actually be your baby’s first bath. If you deliver your baby in a hospital, the nurses will probably give your newborn a sponge bath. It used to be commonplace that this would happen soon after birth, but the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends waiting 24 hours before that first bath. Some cultures call for the bath to happen that first day, in which case the WHO recommends waiting at least six hours.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains that waiting can help maintain your little one’s body temperature and blood sugar, encourages skin-to-skin bonding, leads to better success with breastfeeding, and keeps the white, filmy substance on their skin called the vernix caseosa.

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Daniel J. Armbrust, DO, a family medicine physician with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group in Geneva, Illinois explains, “This substance is a naturally occurring moisturizing barrier that also has antibacterial properties. According to a study shared by the National Library of Medicine, it also has antioxidant, wound healing, and skin cleansing properties.

It might not be the look you’re going for in those newborn photos, but it’s doing important things for your cutie, so keeping it on there for at least a day is ideal!

Once you’re sent home, you will have your first go at bathtime. Whether you think it will be a simple process (you’re not far off base) or are dreading sudsing up a squirming newborn (fair!), this guide will get you through the first few washes.

Safety

When bathing your child at any age, water safety should always be top of mind. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reminds families that babies can drown in as little as 1 to 2 inches of water and recommends that babies not be left alone for even a moment when bathing.

Another safety tip that Dr. Armbrust shares with parents is water temperature.

“Ideal bath water temperature is warm water, around 100 Fahrenheit,” he says. You might not have a bath thermometer, so test the water with your elbow or inside of your wrist to make sure the bath temperature isn’t too hot for baby’s skin beforehand. These spots are not often used for sensation, he explains, so they are a good gauge.

You might like a hot shower and steaming water to wash dishes, but you should use simply warm water for your baby’s bath. Dr. Armbrust encourages parents to check the thermostat on their water heater and make sure it is maxed out at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Better yet, do this before your wee one arrives and you’re too sleep-deprived to remember this important rule of thumb. “So even if something were to happen, the water can’t get above that scalding temperature,” he says.

Timing

Newborns only need one or two baths a week. If your little one has their first bath in the hospital, and depending on when you are released, you can probably hold off for another day or two. Once their umbilical cord falls off, you will transition to more of a regular bath schedule and shoot for two to three times a week.

Until then, stick to a couple of sponge baths (not submerged) to avoid drying out their skin. The only time you might have to sneak another one in is if they have a big diaper blowout (hopefully not, but sorry—it’s likely inevitable sooner or later!).

As for the time of day, Dr. Armbrust says you can’t really go wrong, but that he recommends before a nap or bedtime.“ The bath wakes them up a little bit, so they will be ready to feed and then ready to go to bed after that,” he says.

Preparations

You will want to have your game plan and necessities ready to go before you involve your newborn for the first time.

First, figure out where and how you want to bathe your baby. Some parents like to lay their baby on a flat surface like a changing table or the floor and stand (or sit) next to them. Others will have one partner hold the baby while the other is giving them the sponge bath.

“I encourage parents to do what feels most comfortable,” Dr. Armbrust says.

Next, get some warm water ready. When it comes to the actual cleansing, you’ll want products that are gentle on their sensitive skin. This means picking out a soft washcloth or sponge and choosing a fragrance-free and hypoallergenic soap.

Finally, be sure to have a couple of dry towels ready to possibly place on the floor, changing table, etc., or to hold and dry your baby with. Then have a clean diaper and clean clothes within arm’s reach so you can quickly dress your bathed babe without leaving them unattended.

Steps

Take your sponge or cloth, dip it in the warm water, and start at your baby’s head. Do not use baby soap at this point. Wipe each eye from the inner corner to the outer, using a clean part of the cloth for each eye. Clean the rest of baby’s face and only wash the surface of their ears and nose (no cotton swabs!).

Now you can use some soap. Gently wash baby’s hair with baby shampoo and make your way down baby’s body, making sure to gently clean in all their creases, between their fingers and toes, and saving their diaper area for last. As is the case with the rest of their body, be soft and thorough when washing their genitals. If your child is healing from a circumcision, make sure to wait 24 hours after the procedure and pay special attention to the sensitive area when cleaning. It’s best to clean the area by squeezing clear water over the penis with a sponge or wet washcloth until the wound heals (usually around a week).

Dr. Armbrust recommends wrapping or covering any parts of their body other than their face that isn’t currently being washed. This helps them feel warm and safe.

“A newborn baby was just wrapped up in utero and is used to being swaddled, so they want to feel secure,” he says.

Wipe away any lingering suds and pat your infant dry.

Aftercare

You’ll want to quickly dress your clean little one, notes Dr. Armbrust, so again, it’s helpful to have everything within reach from the start.

“With newborns, you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to help them regulate their body temperature.”

Lotion might be part of your post-bath skin care ritual or bedtime routine down the line, but you can skip it at this age. Remember that their newborn skin may still be benefiting from the vernix caseosa, which is gently washed off during the first sponge bath.

“After the first bath, lotion is typically not needed,” Dr. Armbrust says. “After subsequent baths, if some dry skin is noted, parents can use a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturizing lotion as needed.”

Bathtime reactions can vary for new babies and new parents. You may feel anxious about the experience, and your baby might have a startled look or cry. Remember, this is a new experience for them, just as it is for you.

With proper preparation and by doing your best to keep your babe feeling warm and secure, it can also become a special activity.

“I think this is a fun time with parents and their newborn,” Dr. Armbrust says. “It’s a bonding time, and if you hold your baby throughout it, then that just accentuates that bond.”

If you have additional questions or concerns regarding baby’s bath time, talk with your pediatrician.

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