You’ve gotten all the essential baby gear, set up the nursery and brought your newborn home from the hospital. But when it comes time for baby’s first bath, there are suddenly so many questions. When can I give my newborn a bath? How often should you bathe a newborn? What’s the right water temperature? Not to worry. We’ve got all the bases covered to prep you for baby’s first bath—and beyond.
When to Give Baby’s First Bath
It used to be the norm at hospitals to whisk newborns away right after birth for a bath. Not anymore. Recommendations have shifted in favor of waiting at least a few hours, if not longer, for baby’s first bath (the World Health Organization recommends a 24-hour delay).
Research indicates that there may be significant physical and emotional benefits to delaying that initial newborn bath. Since young babies are especially sensitive to cold, it can decrease cold stress, says Katherine Williamson, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, California. “Cold-induced stress can cause the body to work to keep itself warm, which can cause blood sugar levels to drop,” she explains, citing studies that show delaying baby’s first bath decreases rates of hypothermia and hypoglycemia. Plus, babies are born with a waxy, cheese-like coating on their skin, called the vernix, which you don’t want to wash off, Williamson says, since it helps retain heat and can serve as an additional barrier to infections. In addition, a 2013 study found that delaying baby’s first bath in the hospital until at least 12 hours after birth led to an increased breastfeeding success rate, “since mom can nurse more quickly and have more time for skin-to-skin bonding,” Williamson adds.
Baby’s first bath at home
Once you get your little one home, there’s no set timetable for when to give baby her first sponge bath. Experts agree that the timing for bathing a newborn is up to the parents, and that there’s no big rush. “Many families are excited about giving a baby their first newborn bath at home, but waiting a few days is fine,” says Justin Smith, MD, a pediatrician at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas.
Holly S., a mom of two, gave birth to her second baby at home and didn’t bathe him for more than a week. “There’s no need to wash them right away in most circumstances,” she says. “Any blood from the birth can be wiped off, and you just need to wipe their diaper areas thoroughly in the meantime.” She also made sure to rub the vernix into her baby’s skin to get the most out of its antimicrobial and moisturizing properties.
How Often Should You Bathe a Newborn?
For newborns, a sponge bath one to three times a week should be sufficient. “Babies don't need to be bathed that often,” Williamson says. “Newborns don't really get dirty.” Keep in mind that you shouldn’t fully immerse baby in water until the umbilical cord falls off. For circumcised baby boys, sponge baths should continue until their penis is healed.
Jacoba C. waited several weeks to give her daughter her first newborn bath at home, and rarely washed her after that. “She was so clean and smelled so good, I didn’t see any reason to,” she says. “Of course her diaper area was getting cleaned all the time, and I made sure to wipe down all the little fat roll crevices under her neck and behind her knees regularly.”
Some parents prefer to give regular baths as part of a bedtime routine, which is fine as well. “Baths can help soothe babies who are fussy and be part of a healthy sleep regimen,” says Sabrina Fernandez, MD, a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.
How to Bathe a Newborn
Bathing a newborn may seem daunting at first, but with a little preparation and the right setup, baby’s first bath (and those that follow) can be a stress-free, joyful experience. Yes, baby will likely cry, but it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong.
“Don't worry about it so much!” advises Mary F., a mom of two. “We were so concerned about how to handle our first baby. She was so tiny! So breakable! And then we watched the nurse give our daughter her first bath in the hospital. You would have thought she was washing dishes! That was the moment where we were like, ‘Oh…we're not going to break her.’”
Here, we lay out step by step what you need to do—and what you need to know—when it comes to bathing a newborn.
How to sponge bathe a newborn
For the first week or so after birth, you’ll want to give baby a quick, gentle sponge bath. Here’s how.
• Step 1: Gather supplies. Use our handy baby bath supplies checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you need. At a minimum, you’ll want a dry towel, clean diaper, washcloths and baby soap at the ready. “Have all your supplies within arm’s reach so you don’t have to step away,” Smith advises. Never leave a baby alone in the bath, even for a second.
• Step 2: Pick a place. Decide where you’ll be giving baby that newborn bath. While not strictly necessary, baby bathtubs are convenient. They can be placed in the sink or tub, and some have a hammock-style sling that supports baby’s head. Choose a spot that’s fairly warm and where it’s comfortable for you to kneel or stand while keeping a hand on baby at all times.
• Step 3: Wash small sections at a time. After removing her clothes and diaper and placing her in the baby bathtub (or simply on a soft, dry towel), you’ll want to cover baby with another towel, lifting only a small area at a time and patting dry as you go. Using a washcloth dipped in warm water, gently wipe baby all over, paying special attention to her diaper area and any creases and rolls.
How to give a newborn a bath
Once the umbilical cord stump has fallen off, you can start giving baby full baths. Bathing a newborn can be tricky at first, so if possible, enlist the help of a partner or family member. “It’s best if those early baths can be done with multiple caregivers around so you have extra hands if you need them,” Smith says. After you’ve rounded up your baby bath supplies and decided where you’ll be bathing your little one, follow these steps.
• Step 1: Fill the tub with a few inches of warm water. Aim for about 2 to 3 inches of water, to keep baby safe. Making sure to support baby’s head at all times, gently lower your little one into the water. The bath temperature for a newborn should be between 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, never hotter than 120 degrees. While most parents are worried about making the bath too hot, be sure you don’t err in the other direction, since babies get cold easily. Kelly B., whose baby is now 3, learned a thing or two when she nannied for a woman who had infant twins. “She taught me that the water should be warmer than you’d expect,” she recalls. Dipping your wrist in is a good way to gauge the temperature, but if you’re nervous about getting it right, you can use a thermometer.
• Step 2: Keep baby covered during the bath. Even in a warm bath, baby can lose body heat quickly. “I always kept my two babies covered with a warm washcloth, and I switched them out with fresh warm ones often,” says Lauren W, a mom of two. “I also turned up the thermostat a little bit before bath time to make the house warmer.”
• Step 3: Give baby a good wipedown. Using a soft washcloth, gently wipe baby all over, including her head and face. Pay special attention to creases under the arms, behind the ears, around the neck and the genital area. A newborn bath may seem incomplete without lathering up with baby soaps and shampoo, but it’s not strictly necessary. “There’s no harm in using a natural, scent-free soap, but warm water and a cloth is plenty to get them clean,” Smith says. If you do opt for shampoo, cup your hand across baby’s forehead when rinsing her head so the suds don’t run unto her eyes.
• Step 4: Skip the lotions and powders. Once baby is out of the bath and wrapped up warmly in a hooded towel, you don’t need to worry about applying after-bath products. Newborn skin can often look dry, so it’s tempting to slather baby in lotion—but it’s not a must. “Babies are born with soft, supple skin and natural oils, so they don’t really need lotion,” Williamson says. For any dry patches around the ankles and wrists, try coconut oil, sunflower oil or petroleum jelly. And while you may think baby powder is a nice touch after a newborn bath, pediatricians advise against using it because the particles can get into baby’s lungs and cause respiratory problems.
Yes, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to baby’s first bath. But soon enough bathing a newborn will become second nature, and before you know it, your child will be sitting up on his own and splashing away in the tub. That’s when things really start to get fun!
Updated December 2017