How to bathe your baby safely
Babies usually enjoy bath time. They love to stretch, flail about, and splash in the water. Babies also feel relaxed after a bath. Sometimes that’s all it takes to calm and reassure a child.
Where and when should you bathe your baby?
A few centimetres of water are all you need to bathe your newborn.
You can wash your baby in a regular bathtub with you, in a baby bathtub, or in a clean sink. To make sure your baby is warm enough, keep the room temperature between 22°C and 24°C (between 71°F and 75°F). Avoid drafts.
Make sure you wash your baby at a height that is comfortable for you. Place a small pillow, blanket, and towel near the tub to create a comfortable spot for your child.
Organize bath time around how awake your baby is. Choose a time when they are awake and calm. Newborns do not need to have a bath every day: 2 or 3 times a week is enough. However, you can use a washcloth to wash their face, neck, hands, bum, and genital area daily.
Baby’s first bath
Generally, the first bath is given within 24 to 48 hours after birth, but this may vary depending on the birth location. Sometimes, newborns aren’t given a bath during their stay at the birth location, but rather after they go home. In this case, parents will be informed on how to wash their newborn.
How to give your baby a bath
Before you begin, make sure you have everything you will need close by: two large fluffy towels, diapers, unscented lotion or baby oil, clean clothes, a very soft washcloth or bath mitt, unscented soap or cleansing wash, mild unscented baby shampoo, nail clippers if needed, a comb, and a cotton swab to clean the umbilical cord.
The best way to wash a baby is to start with the head and work your way down.
When you wash your baby, you don’t need to use soap, except to clean their bum, genital area, and hands. If your baby has a dirty diaper, clean their bum before you place them in the bath. This way, you’’ll start with clean water.
If your baby is still covered in vernix, do not rub it off. This natural protective substance will be absorbed into your newborn’s skin within a few days.
Step-by-step guide to washing baby
To hold your baby securely while in the bath, place your forearm under their head to ensure it stays put, and place your hand under one of their armpits. Wash your baby with your other hand. Make sure to always support their head. You can place a small towel at the bottom of the tub to prevent your baby from sliding around.
- Start by gently washing their face with a very soft washcloth or bath mitt. Carefully wipe their eyes, moving from nose to cheek. Use a different corner of the cloth for each eye.
Wash the outer part of each ear and the skin around it. Do not use cotton swabs to clean inside the ears.
- Wash their scalp and hair with a very mild shampoo once or twice a week. Hold your baby’s head up well above water as you do this. Avoid rubbing or putting too much pressure on the fontanelles as you wash. Continue to support their head as you rinse off the shampoo completely.
- Wash their belly and arms, followed by their legs. Don’t forget to clean in between all of their skin folds.
- Wash the genital area last. If you have a girl, wash her vulva from front to back, gently spreading the labia majora. If you have a boy, wash his penis and scrotum well. However, do not pull back on the foreskin.
When you’re done, wrap your baby in a towel and pat them dry. Avoiding rubbing their skin. Be sure to dry in between their skin folds (neck, thighs, groin, etc.). Otherwise, the humidity may cause irritation and redness.
Babies love skin-to-skin contact. Take advantage of bath time to give your child a massage. This will reassure them.
Once your baby is dry, give them a fresh diaper, making sure it doesn’t rub against their umbilical cord if it hasn’t fallen off yet. It’s okay to bathe your baby if the umbilical cord is still attached. The important thing is to dry it well after the bath.
- Do not use baby powder or talcum powder, as these products can become airborne. The particles can damage your baby’s lungs if they’re inhaled.
If needed, trim your baby’s nails after their bath or while they’re asleep. That being said, do not cut your newborn’s nails, since they’re still stuck to your baby’s skin. Wait until they’ve grown long enough before you trim them.
- If your baby is circumcised, follow the instructions the doctor or nurse gave you for washing your baby and cleaning the circumcision wound (in French).
How to clean the umbilical cord
To prevent infection, it’s important to keep the umbilical cord clean and dry. Clean the base of the stump every day. Wash your hands before you begin. Soak a cotton swab in warm (ideally boiled) water or saline solution, and gently clean all the way around the cord to remove any debris. Be sure to clean inside all the folds. Dry the cord thoroughly using a dry cotton swab. Always keep the umbilical cord dry and above the edge of the diaper. Do not apply rubbing alcohol, creams, or ointments to the umbilical cord, as these products can delay the time it will take to fall off.
For more information, read our fact sheet on the umbilical cord
Bath time safety tips
- Never leave your baby alone in the bath or on a table, even for a short time. Never take your eyes off them, either. An infant can drown in a very short time and in a very small amount of water (about 3.5 cm or 1½ inches).
- Always check the water temperature before placing your baby in the bath. Dip your elbow or wrist in the water to make sure it’s warm enough. The water should feel pleasant to the touch. The ideal temperature for bath water is 37°C (98°F), which is the average temperature of the human body.
- Never fill the bathtub while your baby is in it, as a sudden rise in water temperature can cause serious burns.
- Make sure to keep everything you need within reach, such as spare towels and soap.
- Always hold your baby with one hand when reaching for something.
Things to keep in mind
Babies don’t need to be bathed every day, but washing their face, neck, hands, bum, and genital area daily with a washcloth is sometimes necessary.
You don’t need to use soap when you wash your baby, except to clean their bum, genital area, and hands.
Never leave your baby unattended in the bath, as they can drown in seconds in very little water.
Scientific review: Audrey Larone Juneau, Nursing Executive, CHU Sainte-Justine
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: November 2020
Photos: iStock.com/Jurasy and GettyImages/Mik122
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Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. “Bathing your baby.” From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Your baby’s skin.” 2017. www.caringforkids.cps.ca