Mayo Clinic Health Library

Baby bath basics: A parent's guide

Updated: 03-05-2013

Bathing a slippery newborn can be a nerve-racking experience. Your baby might not like it much, either. With a little practice, however, you'll both start to feel more comfortable at bath time. Start by learning baby bath basics.

How often does my newborn need a bath?

There's no need to give your newborn a bath every day. In fact, bathing your baby more than several times a week can dry out his or her skin. If you're quick with clean diapers and burp cloths, you're already cleaning the parts that really need attention — the face, neck and diaper area.

Is it better to bathe my baby in the morning or at night?

That's up to you. Choose a time when you're not rushed or likely to be interrupted. Some parents opt for morning baths, when their babies are alert and ready to enjoy the experience. Others prefer to make baby baths part of a calming bedtime ritual.

Is a sponge bath good enough?

A baby bath doesn't necessarily need to be done in a tub of water. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends sponge baths until the umbilical cord stump falls off — which might take up to three weeks. If you'd like to give your baby a sponge bath, you'll need:

  • A warm place with a flat surface. A bathroom or kitchen counter, changing table or firm bed will work. Even a blanket or towel on the floor is OK if it's warm enough.
  • A soft blanket, towel or changing pad. Spread it out for your baby to lie on.
  • A free hand. Always keep one hand on your baby. On a changing table, use the safety strap as well.
  • A sink or shallow plastic basin to hold the water. Run warm water into the basin or sink. Check the water temperature with your hand to make sure it's not too hot.
  • Essential supplies. Gather a washcloth, a towel — preferably with a built-in hood — cotton balls, mild baby shampoo, mild moisturizing soap, baby wipes, a clean diaper and a change of clothes.

When you're ready to begin the sponge bath, undress your baby and wrap him or her in a towel. Lay your baby on his or her back on the blanket, towel or pad you've prepared. Wet the washcloth, wring out excess water and wipe your baby's face. There's no need to use soap. Use a damp cotton ball or clean cotton cloth to wipe each eyelid, from the inside to the outside corner. When you're ready to clean your baby's body, plain water is usually OK. If your baby is smelly or dirty, use a mild moisturizing soap. Pay special attention to creases under the arms, behind the ears, around the neck and in the diaper area. Also wash between your baby's fingers and toes. To keep your baby warm, expose only the parts you're washing.

What type of baby tub is best?

Many parents choose free-standing plastic tubs specifically designed for newborns. Others opt for plastic basins or inflatable tubs that fit inside the bathtub. Lined with a towel or rubber mat, the kitchen or bathroom sink might be another option.

Remember, though, safety is the most important consideration — not necessarily the type of tub. Gather the same supplies you'd use for a sponge bath and a cup of rinsing water ahead of time so that you can keep one hand on the baby at all times. Never leave your baby alone in the water.

How much water should I put in the tub?

The ideal amount of water for a baby bath is debatable. A common recommendation is 2 to 3 inches (about 5 to 8 centimeters) of warm water. To keep your baby warm, you can pour warm water over his or her body throughout the bath. Some research suggests that using slightly more water — enough to cover a baby's shoulders — can be calming and help reduce heat loss. With any amount of water, be sure to hold your baby securely during the bath.

What about water temperature?

Warm water is best. To prevent scalding, set the thermostat on your water heater to below 120 F (49 C). Always check the water temperature with your hand before bathing your baby. Be sure the room is comfortably warm, too. A wet baby can be easily chilled.

What's the best way to hold my newborn in the tub?

A secure hold will help your baby feel comfortable — and stay safe — in the tub. Use one of your hands to support your baby's head and the other to hold and guide your baby's body into the water, feet first. Support your baby's head and torso with your arm and hand. Wrap your arm under your baby's back, grasping your baby firmly under the armpit. When you clean your baby's back and buttocks, lean him or her forward on your arm. Continue to grasp your baby under the armpit.

What should I wash first?

Most parents start with the baby's face and move on to dirtier parts of the body. Wash inside skin folds, and rinse the genitals carefully.

Should I wash my newborn's hair?

Wash your newborn's hair if it seems dirty or your baby develops cradle cap — a common condition characterized by scaly patches on the scalp.

Supporting your baby's head and shoulders with your free hand, gently massage a drop of mild baby shampoo into your baby's scalp. Rinse the shampoo with a damp washcloth or directly under the faucet, cupping one hand across your baby's forehead to keep suds out of his or her eyes.

Do I need a special type of soap?

There's no need to use special soap for a baby bath. In fact, plain water is fine for newborns. When needed, use a mild moisturizing soap. Avoid bubble bath and scented soaps.

Will lotion after a baby bath help prevent rashes?

Most newborns don't need lotion after a bath. The best way to prevent rashes is to dry inside your baby's folds of skin after each bath. If you choose to use lotion, pick one that's hypoallergenic.