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Bathing a baby: your newborn’s first bath

Giving your baby his/her first bath can be nerve-wracking – you're still not fully comfortable handling this delicate, tiny human, and you might not be unsure about covering his/her body in water. However, it doesn't have to be a scary experience, as your little one's bath is one of the first milestones in your parenting journey and a memory to treasure. Read on to discover what you need to know about bathing your newborn.

When should you give your baby his/her first bath?

While it used to be standard practice for nurses to whisk away your baby after birth for a bath, recommendations in recent years have shifted in favor of waiting at least a couple of hours, if not longer, to give a baby the first bath (the World Health Organization recommends waiting 24 hours).

Studies indicate that there may be several emotional and physical benefits to delaying that first birth. Since young babies are particularly sensitive to cold, it can significantly cold stress and subsequently reduce the risk of hypoglycemia and hypothermia. Additionally, babies are born with a waxy coating on their skin, known as the vernix, which helps to retain heat and can serve as a barrier to infection.

Another reason to delay that initial bath is that it can improve your breastfeeding success rate, as well as promote bonding between mother and baby.

You won't need to bathe your baby in the infant tub until the umbilical cord stump falls off on its own (and the circumcision scar has healed, if your little boy had the procedure). This may take around 14 days, or longer. In the meantime, you'll have to stick to sponge baths.

What do you need for your baby’s first bath?

Here are the supplies you will need to give your newborn a sponge bath:

  • Some cotton balls
  • A bowl of warm water 
  • Baby body wash (can also serve as shampoo)
  • A diaper
  • A towel
  • An outfit change – like a onesie  

How to give your newborn a bath

  • Topping and tailing

Here are the steps to follow to bathe your newborn during those first few days:

1. Fill the baby bathtub with warm water

Fill the tub with about 2-3 inches of water. Making sure to keep your baby's head supported at all times, gently lower him/her into the water. The bathwater temperature for a newborn should be between 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit. A good way to gauge the water temperature is by dipping your wrist in it, but if you want to get it exactly right, use a thermometer.

2. Keep your baby warm during the bath

Even when you use warm water, your baby can still lose body heat quickly. To prevent this, turn up the thermostat a little bit to make the room warmer before bath time.

3. Give him/her a gentle but thorough wipe down

Dampen a cotton ball and use it to gently wipe your baby’s eyelids from the inside corner out. Use a cotton ball for each eye, and another one to clean around their nose. Take another piece of damp cotton wool and wipe around the ears, but not inside them. Use this technique to wash the rest of your little one’s face and neck, making sure to clean between the folds of skin.

Use a fresh piece of cotton wool to clean your baby’s bottom. If you have a girl, it’s crucial to wipe the genital area from front to back, to avoid spreading bacteria from the bottom to the vagina. If you have a boy, wipe around the penis and testicles gently.  You don’t need to pull back the foreskin. 

There’s no harm in using a gentle, natural, scent-free baby body wash, but cotton balls and water should be enough to get your baby clean. If you do opt to use shampoo, make sure you cup your hand across your baby’s forehead when rinsing his/her head so the lather doesn’t get into his/her eyes.

4. Dry your baby

Once you finish bathing your baby, dry his/her skin gently, but thoroughly – making sure to dry in all those folds and creases – and put the clean diaper on. 

You don’t need to worry about slathering your baby in after-bath products. Newborn skin can often appear dry, so you might be tempted to apply lotions, but they're not necessary – babies are born with soft and supple skin, so they don't need fancy lotions. For any dry patches, try using scentless petroleum jelly. You should also skip baby powder; pediatricians don't recommend it because the particles can find their way into your baby’s lungs and potentially cause respiratory problems.

In terms of when you should give that first official bath, it’s entirely up to you. You may want to wait a few days and just give your little one top and tail cleanses in those first days instead of full baths, but you might also want to create a bathing routine as soon as you get your baby home.

How often should you bathe your newborn?

It may come as a surprise to learn that you don’t need to bathe your newborn daily. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, bathing your baby three times a week is fine as long as you thoroughly clean their neck, face, hands, and diaper area daily. 

When is the best time to bathe your newborn?

It's entirely up to you to decide when to bathe your baby. Just make sure you choose a time when you don't have to worry about interruptions. As a rule of thumb, you'll find that you'll have the easiest time bathing your baby when he/she is content and relaxed. If you intend to bathe your little one after a feeding, consider waiting a while to allow his/her tummy to settle.

Final thoughts

It can take some time and a bit of practice on your time, but bath time could soon become something that you and your baby look forward to. By making your child’s first bath a comfortable and stress-free experience, you can help them learn to see bath time as a fun, relaxing time spent with Mommy or Daddy.

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