Guidelines for Bathing your Newborn

Ever wonder about best practices for bathing your newborn? Dr. Greene breaks it down step-by-step for new parents. Here's how it works.

Dr. Greene’s advice on bathing your newborn…

Most of us have some sort of a picture collection from our childhood. 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. Here are some guidelines for a safely and easily bathing your newborn:

      • 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 spouse or partner 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 like 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 hair near the end of bathing your newborn. 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.
      • When it’s time to wash the diaper area, remove her diaper and sponge off the skin on her belly and bottom. Usually babies’ genitals need only gentle cleansing. For little girls, wash from the front to the back. Don’t be concerned if you see a white discharge or vaginal bleeding. These are both normal for newborn girls, and the discharge does not need to be wiped completely away. Leave whatever does not come off with one gentle pass. If you do have a son, do not retract or pull back the foreskin on an uncircumcised penis! Do not wash the head of a circumcised penis before it is healed.
      • Before putting on a clean diaper, some practitioners recommend gently raising your daughter’s umbilical stump and cleaning around the bottom of the stump with an alcohol swab. Others recommend allowing it to dry naturally after baths.
      • Dress your fresh, clean, and oh-so-cuddly baby. There are a few additional things to keep in mind:
      • Never, never leave your baby alone in a bath! Not even long enough to answer the phone or turn off the stove. If you remember that you left the stove on in the middle of bath time, take Emily out of the bath, wrap her in a towel, and take her with you into the kitchen to turn off the stove. On your way back to the bath, grab a dry towel to use when her bath is complete.
      • You only need to use a couple of inches of water in the tub, and make sure the water is warm — not hot. Babies’ skin is very sensitive to heat. If you are unsure about a safe temperature, you can buy an inexpensive bath thermometer at a local baby store or drug store. These simple devices change color to indicate safe and unsafe heat levels. (Note: If you haven’t already done so, you need to turn down your hot water heater to no higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.)
      • Use a tub that is the right size for your baby. Most baby tubs you purchase come with an insert for young babies. This makes it much easier for you to keep your child’s head out of the water.
      • Gentle soaps really are better for baby’s skin during the first year or so. (Note: Ivory is not a gentle soap. Try an unscented baby soap or Dove, Basis, or Neutrogena.) Use soap sparingly and avoid scrubbing.
      • Don’t use adult shampoo on your baby. The no-tears advertisements for baby shampoos are for real.
      • Make bath time fun. Use age-appropriate toys to engage Emily in the whole experience. At first this might be something as simple as giving her a clean washcloth to suck on during the bath. Later, plastic cups and bowls make excellent pouring toys.
Last medical review on: August 23, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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Recent Comments

Good morning…your above article was really good. I stay in chennai India baby is one month old and I would like to know if u would recommend any skincare products especially soap / body wash and shampoo.