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What New Parents Need to Know About: Bathing a Newborn Baby

Efficiency says get a first bath in as soon as possible, but new research suggests otherwise.

In the past, after the APGAR tests and the initial skin to skin cuddles, the next thing a nurse might do is show the eager new parents how to bathe their baby. Times change!

“According to research published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the vernix, removed during early bathing, contains antimicrobial proteins that are active against group B strep, E. Coli and other common perinatal pathogens. Source

That, added to the fact that newborns cannot regulate their body temperatures very well, point to a simple idea: delay bathing baby a little. It won’t hurt them and it might very well help. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be kept clean, particularly in the diaper area, but there’s no need for a full immersive bath in the first hours postpartum.

Sponge bathing at first

There is a lot to be said for a good sponge bath, for the first few attempts. This way, you can keep baby warm with blankets and only wash what needs to be washed: face, diaper area, and hands.

The other advantage is that you can be sure not to soak the umbilical cord stump. Keeping the area dry will help prevent infection until the area is fully healed. The stump will dry up and fall off in the first week or two, so it’s best to avoid a full bath until that happens.

Moving on to a baby bath

Every few days at most, fill up a baby tub or the kitchen sink with up to four inches of warm water. A standard bathtub is best avoided until baby can sit up, as the bath AND the baby are slippery when sudsy! You need maximum control to keep them safe and a baby tub will give you that with its gentle, shallow slope.

Some parents insist on bathing baby daily but that isn’t really necessary and can dry out their skin unnecessarily. Until kids are crawling and getting dirty, a few baths a week is all it takes.

While some babies LOVE a warm bath, almost as if they are temporarily returning to the womb, others HATE them. Don’t be upset if your baby is in the latter group. In either case, don’t let bath time go too long: the water will cool fairly quickly.

Make sure you have everything you will need during the bath handy as you can’t step away for even a second:

  • Towel
  • Face cloth
  • Mild soap
  • A plastic cup for pouring water on their heads and to pour on their bodies throughout the bath, which helps keep them warm
  • A bath toy, for older babies</li>
  • Fresh diaper and clothes or sleepwear

Children have drowned in less than an inch of water so another reminder to NEVER leave a baby alone in the bath is warranted here!

Practice makes perfect

Your first few attempts at bathing baby will be nerve wracking! They are slippery and wiggly, so it’s completely understandable. Practice, in this case, does make perfect and your best resource to help you over the hump is your postpartum doula. She can walk you through the steps of how best to hold and handle baby to keep them safe and comfortable.

Bathing baby step-by-step:

  • Put the baby in the bath feet first, so they get used to the water.
  • Make sure to have a hand supporting the head and neck as you slip them in.
  • Start at the head and work your way down, pouring cups of water on them occasionally to keep them warm and for rinsing. Don’t overuse the soap: it has a drying effect on baby skin.
  • When done, lift them out of the tub supporting the head and neck with one hand and the other hand under their bottom. Pop them into a dry towel and dry them off quickly, so that they don’t get cold.

When can you transition baby to a standard tub?

When baby can sit unassisted, you can use a regular tub. Just remember that they are still unstable, wiggly and slippery, so use every precaution when getting them in and out of the tub and NEVER, EVER leave a baby alone, even if you’re using a bath seat or other aid.

If you’re worried about bathing your baby at first, don’t be. You’ll get the knack of it no time. And if you have any questions, ask your postpartum doula. It’s what she’s there for!

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