There’s how to bathe your baby—and then there’s bathing a newborn in a way that’s safe (always!), relaxing, and even enjoyable for everyone involved.
The Pump Station & Nurtury has supported new and expecting parents in the Greater Los Angeles area for more than 33 years with evidence-based breastfeeding, baby care, and parenting education. Through its array of prenatal and postnatal classes and services, in person and online, Pump Station gives parents the tools they need to parent confidently.
“How can I keep my baby safe and happy during a bath?”
According to Corky Harvey, RN, IBCLC, and co-founder of The Pump Station & Nurtury, this is one of the most common questions asked by new and expectant parents during Pump Station’s Virtual Baby Care 101 Class. Along with:
- Which baby bathtubs are best and most safe?
- Which baby tubs are most comfortable for both parent and baby?
- If my baby cries, does that mean I’m doing something wrong? Aren’t babies supposed to love a bath?
As a seasoned parent educator and newborn care specialist, Harvey knows there’s plenty of information available to parents about newborn bathing. While helpful, much of it focuses more on baby safety, and less on keeping them happy and comfortable. The main focus of baby bathtub manufacturers is safety as well—and thank goodness for that!—but Harvey would like to help new parents look at bathing from a baby’s perspective…
What might babies tell us about having a bath?
- “When I’m on my back away from you, my startle reflex makes me feel scared.”
- “When only a little bit of my body is in the warm water, I get cold, and that makes me cry.”
The packaging on baby bathtubs often shows a baby semi-reclined in a tub with a steep incline that keeps the baby mostly out of the water. These babies are usually well past the newborn stage, no water is visible surrounding them, and they’re smiling and happy. But here’s the truth about newborns: They hate being cold, and they feel frightened without a parent’s hands firmly securing them. They also startle because of the Moro reflex, which makes them feel as though they’re falling, and so they cry.
So, how to bathe baby so the experience is more enjoyable for everyone? How to combine safety and comfort and make bath time cozy and secure? Here are some things to try, for that first bath and beyond:
- Consider getting a tub that allows you to hold your baby securely while they lie back in the tub far enough that the warm water comes up at least over their tummy. Aim to submerge their entire back in the water too. Some experts suggest only one to two inches of water in the tub for safety reasons, but would you enjoy taking a bath in two inches of water?
- Harvey prefers a tub that has a flat, rather than inclined, bottom. Some tubs have a sling insert supporting the baby, but it often keeps the whole body above the water. If the water can be high enough to surround more of the baby’s body, the sling can be a good choice.
- Use the kitchen sink! A large kitchen sink can work perfectly for bathing baby. Just wash the sink, rinse well, and cover the bottom with a sponge or rubber baby mat made for this purpose. A towel will work too.
- When the umbilical cord is off (around two weeks) and you’re ready to move from a baby sponge bath to a tub bath, try this: Slip your left arm (if you’re right-handed) under baby’s shoulders and gently encircle their far upper arm with your left hand. Hang onto both feet with your right hand while slipping the baby into the water feet first. Lay the baby back, so the back of the head is resting on the inside of your left wrist, while your right hand is washing the baby (don’t take your left hand off the baby’s upper arm). And keep talking to baby all the while—it doesn’t matter what the words are, as long as your voice is loving and soothing. Singing works too. When you’re ready to bring the baby out of the tub, grip both feet securely with your right hand, lift your baby onto the towel, and wrap them up. If they’re crying, pick them up in the towel and wrap them in your arms.
- Make your baby bath towel warm by wrapping it around a hot water bottle or heat pack. When you’re ready to bring the baby out of the tub, move the water bottle aside and wrap your baby in a nice, warm towel. Or hand your wet baby to your partner who is holding that cozy towel.
- Choose a bath time when your baby is not hungry.
- Bathe your baby by taking them in the tub with you. Get comfortably situated in the tub yourself, then have your partner pass the baby to you. NOTE: Never step in or out of the tub with a baby in your arms. A slip and fall could be dangerous. If you’re breastfeeding, you can easily calm your baby by leaning back and nursing in the warm water. Just make sure to always hold your baby close.
- NEVER leave your baby unattended in any bath, for any reason. If you need to leave the room, wrap your baby in a towel and take them with you.
- Give your baby a massage after the bath. This can help a baby make a positive, “feel good” association between the bath and the massage. And don’t worry about doing a baby massage “right”—any nurturing touch will feel good.
- Use a mild, non-toxic combination soap-shampoo that can be used with one hand. Remember, you aren’t going to let go of your baby for even a second.
- In terms of frequency, babies really aren’t very dirty, so bathing two to three times a week is usually enough. The diaper area needs to be washed with soap and water whenever a baby has a dirty diaper, and at least once daily. The hair and scalp also need to be washed often to lessen the chance of developing cradle cap, but you can do this while the baby is fully dressed. Just put baby under your arm—in a “football hold”—and do a quick shampoo over the sink. A soft little scrub brush made for this purpose can help.
- Baby bath water should be warm but not hot. Feel it with the inside of your wrist. It’s just right if you can barely feel it—about 100 degrees.
These newborn bath suggestions are just a starting point. There is no one right way to bathe a baby, and you’ll quickly develop your own, which is what works best for you and your family with the least amount of stress. With time, bath time will become an enjoyable part of your bedtime routine: bath, massage, soothing music, story time, low lights, nursing, and cuddling.
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