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The ultimate guide to bathing your newborn baby

Newborns don’t come with a manual, but they should because nothing freaks out new parents like having to wash a small, delicate, oftentimes crying baby. It can be hard to know what you are doing right or wrong.

While in the hospital, you will have help from qualified people. At home, this is not likely to be the case. This is why we have written this ultimate guide to give you the information you need. We include what you should do before, during and after your new baby’s bath.

It isn’t necessary to bathe a newborn every day, every 2 to 3 days can be enough. Some parents opt to sponge bathe their babies until the umbilical cord stump falls off. As regards cleaning of or ‘disinfecting’ the stump, pediatricians now advise just leaving it alone. Here are some guidelines for care of the cord.

The first thing to do before a sponge or full bath, is to wash your hands thoroughly. Once that is done, you can proceed with bathing the baby.

How to give your baby a sponge bath

You will need clean water, mild soap, two wash clothes, one to sponge with soap and the other to rinse and a warm towel.

Before removing your baby’s clothes to give a sponge bath, wash their face. This will give you a chance to clean the eyes carefully.

We now know not to put q-tips into babies’ ears. Instead, use the washcloth to wash the outer part of and behind the ear. Try to keep water out of the baby’s ears.

Babies can have some gunk in the corners of their eyes. Simply dip a cotton ball into warm water and wipe from the inside of the eye to the outside and do the same with a new cotton ball for the other eye. Wash the baby's face gently with a warm, wet, soap free wash cloth, pat dry and then proceed with the sponge bath for the rest of the body.

You should not leave the baby naked. Instead, undress and keep wrapped in a towel. Expose the area you wish to clean, perhaps the chest, and sponge with a warm soapy cloth (wring out the water first). Rinse the baby with a soap free wet cloth and cover the chest with the towel. Repeat the process for the rest of the body. Afterwards, dress the baby up warmly. You can apply a mild lotion to the skin if you like.

Between sponge baths, don’t forget to clean the baby’s bottom well after every diaper change.

Other parents are comfortable going straight to a basin bath. Whether you have opted to give a sponge bath for the first weeks or have decided to give a full both straight away, these tips can help guide you through the process.  

For circumcised baby boys, it is advisable to sponge for 2 days after the surgery. You can then resume full baths but avoid very warm water. Follow your pediatrician’s instructions about bathing your circumcised baby.

Before bath time

It is important to be prepared for baby bath time. Have everything you need before you undress the baby.

Have you ever found yourself in the bathroom only to realise once you’re soaped and wet that you left the towel in the bedroom? This shouldn’t happen with a newborn baby.

Prepare everything you need in advance, including turning off the kettle or anything else that might distract you. It is common to want to pick up the phone if it rings so some parents even turn their phones to silent so that nothing can call their attention away once bath time begins.

You should never leave the baby alone in a bath, even if the water is shallow. This (and other tips in this guide) should be shared with people that might watch your baby when you are not around.

Have the soap, washcloth and a warm towel ready. These should all be within arm’s reach so that you can grab them when you need them. Some babies take a while to really warm up to bath time and need to be soothed immediately after. You can choose to have a towel draped over your shoulder or on your lap so that when you pick the baby out of the water, you can quickly and easily wrap him or her up and comfort them.

Close the windows or turn up the AC. Don’t bathe your baby when it is cold and ensure that the room is warm so that your little one doesn’t catch a chill when you put them in the water.

Check the temperature of the water. It can’t be too hot or too cod, it has to be just right. While a lot of folk knowledge supports using the elbow to test the temperature, there is no evidence to show that it is better than testing the water with your hand. So here parents can go with what makes them more comfortable. Just keep in mind that the baby’s skin is more delicate than yours. One thing you should definitely do is swirl the water about to ensure an even ‘mix’ of hot and cold.

To take the guesswork out of the equation, some parents use a thermometer. The Mayo clinic recommends for bath water to be at 100 Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius.

In addition to the temperature, the water level needs to be just right. About 2 to 3 inches is recommended. High levels present a drowning risk.

During bath time

Your baby might cry during bath time but like adults, babies too enjoy a soothing clean up. You might find that your baby relaxes and goes to sleep after a bath.

While cradling the baby in one arm, some parents are able to wash the baby’s face and hair before putting the baby in the basin. They can then dry the baby’s face and head and then place the baby into the water.

Another way to do it is by sliding the baby into the bath feet first. Water can be a new sensation for the baby so doing this and then gently pouring water over the rest of the body is one way to introduce the baby to water. Once the baby is all wet, wash the face first with a damp cloth or just your open palm and then begin the bath.

Keep an eye on the time

Bath time for the baby should be quick. You shouldn’t leave your baby in the water for longer than is necessary and you should take them out before the water gets cold. Because the baby’s body is small, washing it should take only a few minutes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thorough. Newborns can have gunk stuck in their toes for instance. A soapy washcloth should help you dislodge it.  

Support the baby

Support the baby with one hand and use the other to wash its body. Some parents have a cup or jar that they use to pour water over the body.

Remember that any soap used should be very mild to prevent drying out your baby’s skin. Shampooing hair is optional but be sure to keep any soap, even though it is tearless out of baby’s eyes.

Bathing the baby’s genital area

The penis and vulva of babies should be washed like any other baby body parts, gently. First time parents can be a bit intimidated by this, particularly parents of opposite sex babies; fathers for daughters and mothers for sons.

If your baby boy is uncircumcised, do not try to pull back the skin of the penis. At this age, it is fused with the head of the penis and will separate at about 3 to 5 years. Check with your pediatrician for more clarity on this. If your baby boy is circumcised, gently wash his penis and scrotum with a washcloth.

If you have a baby girl, wipe between the labia with a washcloth going from front to back and make sure to pat dry after the bath.

You should be able to easily turn your baby over so that you can give his or her back and bottom a good wash too.

After bath time

Wrap the baby in a warm towel immediately and make sure to pat dry his or her skin. Do not rub as this can irritate delicate baby skin. Pay special attention to the creases, such as at the joints, which might trap water. Make sure to dry between the toes as well.

Some schools of thought discourage putting any lotion or oils on baby’s skin, but you can choose to apply a mild hypoallergenic lotion to the skin. Baby bottoms however can get diaper rash so watch out for that and apply a diaper cream so your baby can be comfortable.

Only after all this can you then put the baby in a safe place and empty out the bath water. 

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