Bathing your baby


Bathing your newborn

Bathing a new baby can be a daunting prospect, especially if you are a first time parent. It can feel very awkward trying to hold your tiny slippery baby securely in a tub while bathing him. The fear is he will fall or accidentally slip under the water.

There is no single "right way" to hold your baby while bathing him. As long as it is done safely; it's enjoyable for your baby; and it cleanses your baby's skin, then it doesn't matter how you hold him or bathe him.

If you are finding bathing a little awkward then further below you will find descriptions on how to hold your newborn baby securely, that you may not have tried before. Many parents find once they have mastered these holds, bathing their baby is more enjoyable because they feel confident their baby is safe. 


Getting ready!

Collecting supplies

  • Cotton wool balls.
  • Q-tips (to clean your baby's cord).
  • 2 towels.
  • 1 soft washcloth.
  • Baby wash or baby soap.
  • Baby shampoo (not necessary unless your baby has a lot of hair).
  • A baby bath; the laundry sink; or the family bathtub.
  • A basin or sink (for sponge bathing).
  • Moisturizing lotion or baby massage oil.
  • Diaper cream.
  • Clean diaper and clothing.

Preparing the environment

Choose a flat and comfortable surface such as a changing table, a bed, the floor or a bench top next to the sink or bath. Pad hard surfaces with a blanket or a thick towel. If you choose a surface above the floor, keep one hand on your baby at all times to make sure he doesn't fall. Make sure all supplies are within your arm's reach.

Add only a few inches of warm water to the bath or basin. Once you are feeling confident handling your baby in a bathtub you may like to make the water a little deeper for a soothing relaxation bath. Do not add baby wash or soap to the water at this stage. Warm the room before undressing your baby.

Checking the water temperature

Use your elbow or wrist rather than your hand to check the temperature of the water. The water should be only slightly warm to your touch.

If you are planning to bath your baby in a sink or the family bathtub, make sure you turn the cold tap on first and off last to avoid scalding from the spout (which can become very hot). Do not place your child into water, while the water is still running.


How to tub bath a newborn

Where to start!

Lay an additional towel down (to be used to wrap your baby). Undress your baby but leave his diaper on for now. Wrap him in the towel, covering him from his shoulders down. Using the bathing process described below, your baby's face and hair are washed before he goes into the bath water.

Washing your baby's face

Wipe each eye with a separate cotton wool ball, which has been dipped in the clean water (without baby wash or soap). Wipe from the inner edge (near his nose) to the outside edge. Using a washcloth wash your baby's face, his nose, ears and creases behind his ears, then pat dry.

Washing your baby's hair

If you have chosen to use baby wash, add that to the water now.

While your baby is still wrapped in the towel, lay your baby facing you, place your left hand under your baby's neck (supporting his head with your fingers and shoulders in the palm of your hand). Using your right hand to lift his lower body and gently place him into a 'football hold' (with his head forward and feet tucked under your left arm). Secure his body between your left hip and elbow. Once you feel he's securely supported using only your left arm, use your right hand to wash and rinse his hair over the bathtub. (Reverse these arm grips if you are left-handed.)

Lay him back down and pat dry his head. Now it's time to remove his diaper because he's ready for the bath.

If you are using baby SOAP you can choose to either lather your hands with soap then massage his body with your soapy hands before placing him into the bathtub to rinse off; or wash him with a soapy washcloth once he's in the bathtub.

How to hold your baby securely in the tub

With your baby lying facing you, place your left forearm behind your baby's neck With your thumb and fingers grasp jhis left upper arm, near his shoulder. (His neck should be resting on your wrist). With your right hand, grasp his feet and gently lift him into the bath. Sit him in a semi-reclining position. Once his bottom is resting on the base of the bath release your hold on his feet (but maintain your hold on his upper body). Your right hand is now free to wash him using a washcloth. (Use the opposite hand grips if you are left-handed).

If you have chosen to use baby wash, you would now wash your baby's body using a washcloth. Start from his neck, then chest, tummy, back, arms and legs, leaving his diaper area until last. To wash your baby's back, either lean him forward slightly or carefully roll him over.

Pay special attention to the creases under your baby's neck and arms, and the folds in his groin. (Gently wash between the labia skin folds of your baby girl's genitals, without soap.)

If you have chosen to use baby soap and have already soaped your baby up (as described further above) you only need to rinse the soap off using the washcloth.

You may need to pour warm water over your baby's body from time to time to keep him warm. If your baby enjoys his bath, give him some extra time to splash and enjoy the sensation of the water. Talk to him while you are undressing him, bathing him and dressing him. Tell him what you are doing; what body parts you are washing etc.

When you are ready to lift him out, maintain your hold on his upper body with your left hand and grasp his feet once again with your right hand. Lift him out and place him onto the towel.

Drying your baby

Pat dry, don't rub your newborn's skin. Pay particular attention to drying between the folds of his skin; behind his ears, under his neck, under his arms and his groin etc.

Check your newborn baby's navel area for redness. While his cord is still attached, wipe over his cord with a Q-tip which has been dipped in clean water. Dry his cord using a dry Q-tip. (See Caring for your baby's umbilical cord for more information.)

Moisturize your baby's skin using baby lotion or baby oil. If the room is warm you may like to take a few extra minutes to give him a relaxation massage. If he's upset skip the massage.  A bath and massage at the same time can be too stimulating for many newborn babies.

Dress him in a fresh diaper and clothing. If his cord is still attached, fold the diaper below his cord and clothes above to leave his cord exposed to the air.


How to sponge bath your baby

Prepare the room and supplies as above. Wash your baby's face and hair using the steps described above.

Instead of placing your baby in the bathtub to wash his body, sponge him with a washcloth. To avoid your baby feeling cold, expose ONLY the body parts that you are washing. Wash then rinse each body part and pat dry, before moving onto a new area. After washing your baby's face and hair, then progress to his neck, chest, tummy, arms and legs. Lay him on his stomach to wash his back. FINISH with his diaper area, wiping from front to back.


Bathing an older baby

When your baby is able to sit independently, you may like to bathe him using the family bath. The same principles of bathing apply to an older baby as they do to a newborn, i.e. face first, then hair followed by other body parts. However, now that he can sit and you no longer need to support his body, this can all be done while your baby is sitting in the bathtub.

The most difficult part in bathing an older baby is hair washing. Most babies do not like water running down their face as their hair is being rinsed. (Some also don't like having their face washed!) Because soap can sting your baby's eyes you need to avoid getting soapy water on his face. There are a couple of different ways you can go about this...

  1. Using a dry washcloth, fold it into quarters and cover your child's eyes with this, holding it firmly under your hand as you gently tip some water from a plastic cup over his head.
  2. You can buy a special plastic ring that is designed to be used when washing children's hair. This is placed around your child's head to protect his face from the water as you rinse his hair. (Unfortunately many children refuse the keep it on long enough to complete the job.)

Only use shampoo designed for babies, some adult shampoos will sting little eyes.

NEVER leave your baby alone in the bath, even for an instant.


Commonly asked questions about bathing a baby

1. How often do I need to bathe my baby?

It is not necessary to bathe your newborn every day if you cleanse his diaper area carefully during diaper changes. A tub bath 2 or 3 times a week during the first year is generally plenty. You may find it helpful to alternate tub bathing with sponge bathing.

Bathing your baby too often can remove the natural protective oils in his skin. If you find you need to tub bath your baby more often don't use baby wash or soap for every bath.

2. When is the best time to bath my baby?

As a newborn it's often easiest to bathe your baby in the morning, when he's alert and the house is quiet and warm. By the time your baby graduates to a bathtub you may want to shift bath time to the evening. The bath is a relaxing way to prepare for sleep and can be a useful step in establishing a bedtime routine.

During the early weeks you may find that it is not possible to have a set time to bath your baby because every day with a newborn can be very different. There will be times you will find he needs to sleep more than he needs to bathe, so you may need to be flexible to suit his needs. It won't do him any harm if he misses a bath occasionally, but he's likely to get very cranky if he becomes overtired because you have prolonged his nap time in order to bathe him.

You can choose to bathe him before or after a breastfed or formula feed, whichever you find works best for your baby. However, you may need to take a little more care if your baby often spits up.

3. Is it OK to tub bath my baby while his cord is still attached?

It ia not a problem that your baby's cord gets wet, but it can be a problem if it were to remain MOIST for a period of time. Advice can vary on whether to tub bath or not while a baby's cord is still attached, this possibly has more to do with the climate of the country you are living in.

In countries with warmer climates a tub bath is fine because your baby's cord will quickly dry out if left exposed to the air. But in cooler climates, where babies are 'rugged up' and exposing the cord to the air is not an option, it may be best to sponge bath until his cord has fallen off (See Caring for your baby's umbilical cord for more information.)

4. What sort of soap should I use?

A newborn baby's skin is very sensitive so it's wise to use a hypoallergenic wash or soap especially designed for babies. The same goes for choosing a baby shampoo; many adult shampoos can sting little eyes. (You do not need to use baby shampoo unless your baby has a lot of hair.) Do not use bubble bath to bathe your baby because it dries babies' skin too much.

5. Do I need to clean inside my baby's ears with Q-tips?

You do not need to clean inside your baby's ears at any time because your baby's ears are 'self cleaning'. You may notice a little wax from time to time, this is very normal. If you believe your baby has a problem with excessive wax see a doctor. Never put anything into your baby's ears to clean them unless advised to do so by a doctor.

6. Is it bad to get water in my baby's ears?

Your baby's ear canal and middle ear are separated by the 'ear drum', so water cannot enter his middle ear while you are bathing him. Therefore it won't be harmful if your baby gets water into his ear; however, it can be uncomfortable so it's safer to avoid getting water inside his ears.

If your child has 'tubes' in his ear drums (which are put there by a specialist to drain fluid from his ears because of recurrent middle ear infections), you need to take great care to avoid any water getting into his ears.

7. Do I need to be careful when washing or drying my baby's soft spot (fontanel)?

You do not need to be afraid to wash your baby's head, so long as you do not rub too vigorously or use your finger nails.

8. My baby hates her bath, is there something I can do to make it more enjoyable for her?

Try to bathe your baby at a time when she's relaxed, this may soon after a breastfed or formula feed. Try to keep bath time as brief as possible while she's very young, because bathing can be very stimulating for a newborn. Use a soft calm voice when speaking to her, keep lights low and use slow movements to reduce stimulation. If your baby finds a tub bath too distressing try a sponge bath instead for a while and try again in a week or so.

9. Do I need to pull back my baby boy's foreskin when bathing him?

No! Wash only what is external and readily visible. Do not try to wash or clean under your baby's foreskin. A child's foreskin does not need to be retracted (pulled back) regularly for cleaning until the end of puberty (which can vary from 12 to 18 years depending on your child).

In a newborn baby the foreskin is almost always attached to the glans of the penis. Forcing the foreskin baby may harm his penis causing pain, bleeding, possible scarring and infection.

10. Is there anything special I need to do when my baby is newly circumcised?

Keep the area as clean and dry as possible. Provide as much diaper-free time as possible. Clean the circumcised area gently with a wet washcloth (do not use soap on newly circumcised penis). Continue to apply A&D® ointment (or similar as instructed by your child's doctor) to the circumcision for the first week or so after your baby has been circumcised to prevent his diaper from sticking.

11. Should I have toys in the bath?

Bath toys are not necessary for very young babies as the stimulation of the water and washing is exciting enough. Once your baby is old enough to sit independently in the bath, bath toys can become great source of distraction as you bathe your baby. There are many toys on the market specifically designed to add fun to bath time.

12. Should I use powder when I am drying my baby?

The use of talc or corn starch powders is not necessary. Both can be very irritating because they may cause chaffing in the folds of your baby's skin. Talc has no water absorbing properties and can be harmful if inhaled. Corn starch can provide a food source for bacteria to grow on.

13. What if I get soap in my baby's eyes?

If you should accidentally get some soap in your baby's eyes it can sting and cause him to cry. Simply take the wet washcloth and wipe his eyes with plain, lukewarm water until any remains of the soap are gone.

Written by Rowena Bennett
RN, RM, RPN, CHN, IBCLC, Grad Dip Health Promotion and author of 'Your Sleepless Baby: The Rescue Guide'

Added May 2004. Reviewed 2008; Sept 2013.