How to bath a newborn

Posted on May 16th, 2019

Turn bathing a slippery and sometimes screaming baby into an enjoyable bonding experience. By Licia Selepe

It’s normal to feel anxious about bathing your baby for the first time. Remember that your baby has been surrounded by amniotic fluid for the past nine months, so she’s familiar with the feel of water. Ease into bath time slowly since your little one will only need a sponge bath for the first few days, until her umbilical cord stump falls off.

Start with a sponge bath

Midwife and owner of Bellies and Beyond, Deidre Nel says it’s essential that newborns are not bathed within their first five days of life. “Their skin needs time to adapt to the outside world, and certain fabrics and perfumed creams can cause skin irritations. Not bathing during this time also prevents weight loss, as when newborns are cold (which can happen after a bath) they burn fat to produce heat.

“A daily sponge bath to clean the nappy area, neck and armpits is more than enough, because newborns don’t come into contact with much dirt,” explains Deidre.

ALSO SEE: Why you should delay your baby’s first bath

Tips for a sponge bath:

  • Place your baby on a soft, flat surface – a clean towel works well. Have a basin of warm water and a sponge handy. There is no need to use soap.
  • Keep your baby warmly wrapped and only expose the area you are washing.
  • Start by wiping your baby’s eyes from the inside corner out with clean cotton wool.
  • Pay special attention to the creases under your baby’s arms, behind her ears, around her neck and the nappy area.

Caring for the umbilical cord

If the umbilical cord stump becomes dirty or sticky, wash it with water and then dry it by gently dabbing with a clean, absorbent cloth. Expose the stump to air to help dry out the base. Stick to sponge baths until it falls off.

ALSO SEE: How to care for the umbilical cord stump

When to give your newborn a full bath

Once the cord stump has fallen off, your baby is ready for a bath in a tub. Assemble everything you need beforehand, and consider having your partner nearby in case you need help holding your baby.

Water temperature

A baby’s skin is more sensitive than an adult’s, so bath water that feels comfortable to you may be too hot for her. “I recommend a temperature between 35 and 37°C,” says Deidre. “My tip is to run a hot bath and then by the time you have undressed your baby and she’s ready to be washed, the water would have cooled.”

But before you put your baby anywhere near the water, test it with the back of your wrist or your elbow as these areas are more sensitive to heat than your hand. The water should feel warm, not hot.

Amount of water

You only need about 5cm of warm water to give your baby an effective bath. These early baths don’t need to be long or involved, but they must get the job done.

You have to support your baby’s head and back as you wash her. Pay special attention to the following:

  • The genital and nappy areas
  • Between the fingers and toes
  • The folds at the backs of the knees, neck and thighs
  • The ears and eyes
  • The genital area (wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria spreading from your baby’s bottom).

Haircare

A newborn’s scalp is delicate, so be careful when cleaning it. Whether your baby has lots of hair or not much you must take precautions to keep the scalp clean at all times. There is no need to wash your baby’s hair every day – twice a week should be more than enough.

Frequency

For a newborn, a bath two or three times a week should be sufficient, as long as you keep her nappy area clean and wash her hands and eyes regularly.

Timing

“Newborn babies seem to enjoy a good night’s sleep if you bath them in the late afternoon, before it gets too cold. It’s always best to bath your baby before a feed, as long as she’s not too hungry,” says Deidre.
Don’t be alarmed if your baby cries during her first few baths, it’s quite normal. Keep the room temperature warm, the bath water comfortable and soothe her by caressing and singing to her. She will soon learn to love bath time.

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Our experienced editors work with trained journalists and qualified experts to compile accurate, insightful and helpful information about pregnancy, birth, early childhood development and parenting. Our content is reviewed regularly by our panel of advisors, which include medical doctors and healthcare professionals.