Bathing Your Baby

by Alan Greene, MD, FAAP

newborn's bathMost of us have some sort of a picture collection from our childhood -- maybe a baby book, or a family scrapbook, or even a box of pictures and memorabilia from our first few years of life. In that collection there are several common pictures. There's the wonderful shot of those tenuous first steps; the picture of a grinning baby covered ear to ear in not only a smile, but green peas, yellow squash, and smashed banana; and the snapshot of a baby sitting in a bathtub, hair slathered with shampoo and piled on her head complete with Cupie Doll curl. Bath time is an important part of childhood.

Most babies get a first mini-bath a short time after delivery. Hopefully the parents will be able to spend some time with her right after she was born. Then, what seems all too soon for most parents, she is taken into the nursery for a few tests, her first immunization, and her first bath.

In the nursery, a skilled nurse carefully laid her on a table (not unlike a kitchen or bathroom sink counter top that is very, very clean) and cradled her head in one hand. With the other hand, he or she gently washed baby with a warm (not hot) washcloth. As soon as the bath was over, the nurse put a clean diaper on your baby and wrapped her in a warm blanket. Until the umbilical stump has fallen off, and the belly button is dry, you can follow this pattern. (If your child is a son, I have given you pointers for boys.) For circumcised boys, you can follow this pattern until his penis has healed from the surgery.

Practical Bathing Tips

• Plan a special time for your baby's first bath at home. It doesn't matter what time of day it is (babies adapt well to different times of the day for baths, though many enjoy a bath right before bed), but you will want to select a time, when both you and your husband are home.

• Get out the camera. It's not time for that Cupie Doll shot just yet, but you will want a picture to record this event.

• Select a convenient place. I mentioned using a kitchen or bathroom counter. You may also want to try a changing table or bed. Cover the area with a thick towel or waterproof pad if needed.

• Get everything you will need ready before you start! The list includes water (of course), washcloth, alcohol pads, bath towel (with hood if you have one), clean diaper, any items you routinely use during a diaper change (for little circumcised boys this would include Vaseline and gauze squares), and fresh clothes. I do not recommend using soap or shampoo on babies this age. Newborns do not get sweaty or dirty except in the diaper area or if they spit up. Even these messes can be easily cleaned with water, which is so much better for most babies' sensitive skin than soap.

• Babies lose body heat very quickly, so make sure the room is warm -- 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

• Gently cradle your baby's head in one hand and use the other hand to remove her clothing. Gently wash her with a soft, warm washcloth, and dry her off with a towel. Take time to admire her individual parts -- all too often we bundle up our babies and never adore those precious feet or that soft bottom. If you like, you can wash one area at a time and put a fresh item of clothing on as soon as an area is washed and dried. This is not necessary unless you are in a chilly room.

• It is a good idea to start with the "less dirty" areas first, i.e. leave the diaper area until last. As you go, be sure to gently wash behind her ears; the crevices in her neck, elbows, and knees; and in between her fingers and toes. I had a friend who would make her one-year-old giggle while bathing her by saying, "Got to wash between those digits!"

• It's a good idea to wash a newborn's hair near the end of bath time. This will help prevent him or her from losing too much body heat. Most newborns don't have much hair, so it is easy to sponge it with water much the same way you do the rest of the body. Almost all babies dislike getting their eyes wet. If you tip the head back just a bit and work your way from the front to the back, you can avoid getting water in your baby's eyes.