How to bathe a newborn is one of the many, many questions you need to find the answer to, when your little one arrives (hats off to you if you’re reading this in advance of this momentous occasion).
If your baby is teeny tiny, you probably need to figure out how to bathe your newborn with umbilical cord still attached and you’ve come to the right place. But there’s actually no urgent rush – the question of when newborns should get their first bath is up first and it’s not as soon as you might think…
And what about bathing newborn baby girls vs. boys? How often should you sponge bathe a newborn? Do you need soap? These, and many more baby bathing questions, will be answered here.
Sponge (or should I say cotton wool) at the ready? Got your newborn steady? Let’s talk sponge bathing.
Why sponge bathe a newborn – why not jump straight in the tub?
While the umbilical cord is still attached, a simple sponge bath for your newborn is the way to go. So if you’re wondering, can my baby have a tub bath before the umbilical cord falls off, the general consensus is, best not. Better to delay tub bathing until the umbilical cord has fallen off.
Can you get the umbilical cord wet?
No, you don’t want to get the umbilical cord wet. Just like any wound, you want to keep it clean and dry, hence a sponge bath is recommended. However, if you’re confident you can keep the umbilical cord dry, you could try a shallow tub bath.
Once the umbilical cord has fallen off, 1-2 weeks after birth, it’s time to get baby in the tub.
If you notice any discharge, bleeding or a foul smell from the umbilical cord, arrange a visit to the pediatrician.
What about my circumcised baby boy?
Just like for the umbilical cord, you want to avoid getting your little boy’s circumcision wound wet until it’s healed. So sponge bathing is a safer option until it’s all healed up, about a week after the operation.
When should newborns get their first bath?
It used to be the thing that newborns were whisked away almost as soon as they landed in the arms of the midwife and the cord was cut. Not anymore.
Well, at least that’s no longer the recommendation, so, if your baby is yet to arrive, it’s worth checking what the hospital policy is on this and letting the midwife and doctors know what you want to happen.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a newborn should not be bathed until at least 24 hours after birth. And there’s no harm in waiting longer.
The main reason for delaying your newborns first bath is due to the presence of a sticky, white covering that babies are born with, called vernix caseosa, “vernix” meaning “to varnish” and “caseosa” meaning “cheesy nature”. It looks about as delightful as it sounds.
But that’s not the point – your baby is not dirty, the vernix has a purpose and needs to stay put. There’s no better example of the ingenuity of nature.
So what exactly is it and what does vernix do? Well, it’s a remnant of one of the first skin layers developed during the first trimester, that combines with fat secretions in the third trimester to become the vernix caseosa.
It has a role to play both in the womb, during delivery and postnatally:
- IN UTERO: provides a waterproofing barrier against the amniotic fluid and facilitates skin formation (source)
- DURING DELIVERY: helps lubricate for a smoother, less painful delivery
- POSTNATALLY: helps prevent bacterial infection, keep that delicate newborn skin moisturized and regulate temperature (source)
So the incredible properties of vernix has implications for when your newborn should have her first bath, but it doesn’t stop there.
Delaying your newborn’s first bath minimizes stress and body temperature loss
Adjusting to the relative harshness of the outside world is no mean feat for a newborn and after the toasty warmth of the womb and their relatively thin skin versus ours, they have to use a lot of energy just to keep warm. A bath will almost certainly involve a loss in body temperature.
Your newborn’s first bath can also be a little stressful; although they were surrounded by fluid during pregnancy, it’s not quite the same as even a simple sponge bath. Remember, anything new and different can potentially stress. The stress response can lower blood sugar levels, something best avoided soon after birth.
Delayed bathing also improves bonding and breastfeeding success
Time post-delivery should be spent encouraging that first breastfeed and as much skin-to-skin as possible. Both help mother-baby bonding and get breastfeeding off to a good start.
So don’t rush your newborns first bath; there’s no harm in waiting several days, even a week after delivery – a thorough clean of the diaper area and any spills and messes from the other end, will be perfectly good enough and allow that vernix to do its job.
So, the full answer to when should newborns get their first bath, is between 24 hours and 7 days after delivery.
How many times do you need to bathe a newborn in a week?
Other than the diaper area and around the mouth and chin, newborns don’t really get dirty, so daily bathing isn’t necessary. Breathe a sigh of relief if you’re wondering how to pack all the baby jobs in.
So just like not hurrying your newborn’s first bath, don’t go overboard with routine bathing; when it comes to how often to bath baby, 2-3 times a week is plenty.
Be sure to wipe away any spit-up (check the neck folds for hidden dribbles) and give those nether regions a good cleanse when changing diapers.
You don’t need to bathe baby everyday. However, if you want to, as part of a bedtime routine, you can, as long as you don’t use soap every time. Overwashing with soap can dry out and irritate a newborn’s delicate skin, hence the 2-3 times a week guideline.
When to start using baby soap & shampoo when bathing a newborn
Firstly, do you even need to use soap when sponge bathing a newborn with umbilical cord still attached? The answer is probably not and if you can do without then so much the better; the longer you wait until introducing soaps and products to your newborn’s delicate skin the better.
However, if a drop of mild soap means you can avoid rubbing a dirty diaper area too vigorously, then that could be the better option.
Wondering which soap and shampoo to use for my bathing your newborn?
This Aveeno baby wash & shampoo ticks all the boxes when it comes to being mild and gentle on baby’s skin; it’s unperfumed, free of soap, parabens, phthalates and other chemicals.
When to put lotions on your newborn after bathing
Just like using baby soap at the sponge bathing stage, less is more.
If and when you do use some, go easy: a little moisturizer on any dry patches is all that’s needed. When using, make sure your newborn is properly dry and not damp.
Some recommended creams for moisturizing your newborn post sponge bath
Again, just like when choosing baby soap, avoid perfumed lotions and creams and avoid nasties such as phthalates, parabens, dyes and other chemicals. So try:
- petroleum jelly – recommended by pediatric dermatologists above lotions and moisturizers designed specifically for babies according to this article from Web MD
- lanolin-based creams, such as this nipple cream – it’s 100% natural and extremely moisturizing so also ideal for your newborn’s dry skin (and a life-saver for your nipples if you’re breastfeeding (put it on after every feed, before they get sore).
Don’t use talcum powder
Sprinkling clouds of talcum powder is an old-fashioned habit. Powder can dry the skin, accumulate in all those baby creases and irritate.
But do apply diaper cream routinely
A good diaper cream prevents, as well as treats, diaper rash, so apply a zinc-oxide-based diaper cream at every diaper change and you’ll probably never have to deal with diaper rash (this is the one piece of information I retained from my one and only antenatal class and it was a good one too!)
Supplies & newborn baby bath products needed, before starting
Before learning how to sponge bathe your newborn step-by-step, you need to get all your supplies ready. You’re going to need:
Cotton wool and supersoft washcloths
You really can’t get softer than cotton wool for sensitive areas such as the eyes and face during the early days and weeks, but for other areas and later on soft baby washcloths, like these 100% cotton muslin washcloths, are the way to go.
Washcloths can be used for all sorts of wiping up predicaments you’ll find yourself in with a newborn (I used them instead of disposable wipes for diaper changes too). Fast forward to the toddler years and they make the perfect hand and face cloths.
Gentle baby soap/body wash for just-in-case
As mentioned above, this Aveeno baby wash & shampoo is unperfumed, soap-, paraben- and phthalate -free and acts both as a baby soap/wash and hair shampoo. But, use sparingly for your newborns first baths, avoid for the first month altogether if you can.
Changing mat with towel on top
Your regular changing matt with a clean folded towel (bath or large hand towel) on top for warmth and extra absorption.
Water holding vestibule
With the umbilical cord still attached and still in the sponge bathing stage, you just need something to keep a little water in. A small bowl or Tupperware will do.
Hooded baby towel
The sort where one corner has a triangular pocket as a hood, like this hooded towel from Burt’s Bees.
Spare towel – baby towel or otherwise
This is really a just-in-case towel – for extra drying capacity or an accident.
Change of clothes for baby, if necessary
It’s only necessary to change your newborn’s clothes when they are actually dirty – newborns are comforted and soothed by familiar smells, including their own smell, so no need to bring out new clothes just because you’re bathing. If baby has only been in her pre-bath clothes a few hours or even a day and they’re still relatively clean, refrain the urge to bring out clean clothes.
Clean diapers, if necessary
Your little one may have a wee or poop in the process of getting dressed, so you want to be in arms length of another one.
In line with the recommendation of applying diaper cream at every change, you’re going to need some of this zinc-oxide-based diaper cream too.
Choosing where to sponge bathe your newborn
Next step in learning how to bathe a newborn is figuring out exactly where, i.e. which room/area to use. Choose somewhere:
Warm or able to accommodate a heater
When it comes to the step-by-step of how to bathe a newborn you’ll see you’re not going to strip baby bare, but having said that, the warmer the room the better.
In the womb, baby was floating around in about 98 Fahrenheit/37 Celcius (your body temperature) so anything a lot lower than that will feel cold, especially since newborns have a much thinner skin than us and a larger surface area to volume ratio.
The closer to that temperature, the less physically demanding (due to less heat loss) your newborn’s first bath will be.
As a guide, if you’re comfortable in a t-shirt, the room is probably just warm enough for your newborn’s first bath. Instead of cranking the temperature of the entire room up, you can of course use a space or fan heater close to where you’re going to carry out the sponge bath.
Dim or dimmable lighting
The problem with bathroom and kitchen lighting is it can be harsh, with bright spot lights. Your baby will be lying on her back so those lights will be beating down into those sensitive newborn eyes, which can add to the stress of your baby’s first bath. If that’s the case, if you’re able to, dim the lights or turn the main lights off and use a table lamp close by for lighting.
Calm and relaxing
Especially during your newborn’s first baths, you want to ensure a calm, relaxing environment. This probably means shutting the door on the chaos of everyday family life and older siblings or moving elsewhere in the house during bathtime.
How to sponge bathe a newborn baby girl or boy with umbilical cord still attached – STEP-BY-STEP
Now you have your bathing supplies ready and have got the where-to-bath-baby sorted, onto the step-by-step of how to bathe a newborn with umbilical cord still attached i.e. how to sponge bathe a newborn.
Sponge bathing is similar to what’s known as “top-and-tailing” in the UK and Austrailia, where you concentrate on a thorough clean of the top and tail end of your newborn, with a washcloth and cotton wool.
STEP 1: Fill the baby bath or sink with water
It doesn’t matter how much water since you’re just sponge bathing, but you won’t need much. Use your elbow or the inside of your wrist to judge the temperature; water should be warm to touch, not hot.
Alternatively, use a baby bath thermometer. The water should be 37-38 degrees Celcius/99-100 degrees Fahrenheit; most baby bath thermometers will have some kind of color-coding or smiley face system to help you get the temperature just right.
STEP 2: Lay all your baby bath supplies out, remove any unnecessary distraction
Lay the towel on top of the change mat, lay out diapers, change of clothes, baby soap, diaper cream so everything is in easy reach.
Ensuring any distraction is minimized/elimimated is mostly for safety – you don’t want to keep your eyes off your newborn for even a minute – but also so you can focus your attention on your newborn, while keeping the environment calm and relaxing.
So, put your phone on silent or leave it in another room and close the door to any potential noise and disturbance.
Also, take off your watch and any jewellery which may get in the way or scratch your newborn.
STEP 3: Undress your newborn but keep her covered
Unless you’ve turned the heating up to tropical levels, you want to minimize your baby’s nakedness. Remove all her clothes, but not the diaper just yet, and wrap in the hooded baby towel, but leaving her head free.
Then lie your newborn on the change mat, with towel on top.
STEP 4: Wash your newborn’s head and face
In the first few weeks use cotton wool on the most sensitive areas of the eyes and face and use plain water (no need for any soap on the face until toddlerhood).
HOW TO BATHE A NEWBORN’S EYES
Dip the cotton w00l in the water, squeeze off the excess and wipe gently from the inner corner of the eye, across the eyelid out towards the ears. Use a fresh cotton ball for the second eye.
FACE & MOUTH
Using another fresh cotton ball wipe the face and mouth with short, gentle strokes.
The ears are slightly less delicate, so you can switch to one of those super soft washcloths now if you like. Only wash the outside of the ears and lobes, don’t try to clean inside baby’s ears and never use a Q-tip inside either as you may damage the eardrum.
SCALP & NECK
Wash over the scalp and all around the neck, not forgetting all those little creases and folds where stray milk can fester and leave a red sore (guilty). You may find a drop of soap helpful, if your baby spits-up a lot.
STEP 5 (this 5th step of how to bathe a newborn is optional): Squeeze a little water over your newborn’s head
You can just wipe the scalp and head with the washcloth but for some reason newborn’s find the sensation of trickling water over their head very soothing. To do this:
- Hold your baby on her back along the length of your forearm, making sure her body, head and neck are well supported
- Position her head over the sink or bath
- With your free arm, using a washcloth, squeeze some warm water over her head so it drains into the sink/bath
You can also give her scalp a little bit of a massage – you may be concerned about touching her soft spot but there’s no need; underneath it’s pretty tough.
STEP 6: Dry and re-cover the head
Dab the face and head dry with a free end of the towel or a dry washcloth. Lift the hood back up over your little one’s head – this is very important before continuing the sponge bath so that you help your newborn retain as much of her body heat as possible.
STEP 7: Unwrap baby from the towel, remove diaper and wash her upper body
Start by washing her arms in a similar way: load a washcloth or cotton wool up with warm water, squeeze out the excess and gently wipe, careful not to miss any crevices, such as the wrist folds.
STEP 8: Blot dry and loosely cover upper body if possible
If you have a particularly arm flaily baby, the recovering part might be a fruitless exercise, so just carry on.
STEP 9: Wash baby’s lower body
More gentle wiping, soap as you see fit, around the legs, buttocks and private parts (specific instructions on how to wash and clean a newborn baby’s private parts is coming up).
Don’t forget that cute butt crevice! Another place that can become sore if missed. Either lift baby high up by holding her legs and reach all the way under or hold her over your arm on her front, so you can see exactly what you’re doing.
Follow any specific instructions your pediatrician gave you regarding care of the umbilical cord.
How to wash & clean a newborn’s private parts
How to wash & clean a newborn baby girl’s private parts
Learning how to bathe a newborn includes knowing exactly how to clean those delicate private parts. Whether a boy or girl, start by loading up some cotton wool with warm water and squeezing out the excess.
For a newborn baby girl hold the labia (or “flaps”) apart with your fingers and gently wipe. Just like when using the toilet, make sure you wipe from front to back.
Try to wipe away any excess diaper creams as you don’t want these to accumulate excessively. However, don’t worry too much about cleaning away any vaginal discharge, which is perfectly normal; this can be left.
How to wash & clean a newborn baby boy’s private parts
Baby boys are a little simpler in my experience, you just need a thorough clean with wet cotton wool or a washcloth around and in between everything. There will probably be less diaper cream to wipe away and it’s slightly easier to clean off of a boy.
Just like for the umbilical cord, follow any specific instructions your pediatrician gave you regarding care of the circumcision area.
If your baby hasn’t been circumcised, do not try to clean under the foreskin, leave well alone.
STEP 8: Drying and dressing your newborn after a sponge bath
So you’ve learnt how to bathe a newborn, now on to drying and dressing.
Once baby is washed and clean, re-wrap in the towel. Then gently pat and dab the towel all over to soak up any extra moisture and dry baby. When sponge bathing this should be a quick exercise but if you have had to use a decent amount of water you may want to use another towel for extra drying ability.
Make sure you pat dry all those creases and folds so there’s no dampness left which could irritate, before putting diaper and clothes back on.
Giving your newborn baby a sponge bath at home FAQs:
All the most common questions regarding the ins and outs of how to bathe a newborn, specifically related to how to sponge bathe a newborn with umbilical cord still attached.
Is a sponge bath good enough to get my newborn clean?
Absolutely; newborns don’t get particularly dirty so as long as you pay attention to the diaper area and ensure you give all those cute creases and baby fat rolls a good wipe, a sponge bath is sufficient to get your newborn clean.
Can I give my newborn baby bath toys?
While you’re only sponge bathing your baby, bath toys aren’t appropriate, and your newborn will show enough interest in you to not need any extra stimulation.
How hot should the water be for a newborn?
Getting the temperature right is a very important part of learning how to bathe a newborn. Use your elbow or inner wrist to test water temperature – it should feel comfortably warm. If you’re unsure, use a baby bath thermometer and ensure the water is 37-38 degrees Celcius/99-100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Do you use soap for a newborn sponge bath?
Soap is only necessary for very sweaty areas or around the diaper area where cream has accumulated and become tricky to remove. The UK and Australia recommend against using soap for the first month. So use your judgment to decide which will irritate your delicate newborn’s skin the least: a touch of baby soap might be more gentle than the scrubbing you might need to do to give baby a good clean.
Which soap and shampoo should I use for my bathing my newborn?
Choose something unperfumed, free of soap, parabens, phthalates and other chemicals. This Aveeno baby wash & shampoo ticks all those boxes.
When can I put lotion on my newborn?
Just like using soap and bathing itself, don’t hurry to put any lotions or creams on your newborn. This needs to be done on an as-and-when-needed basis and is best avoided for the first month; dry patches of skin may need a little moisturizer after bathing, if not then leave it.
Will lotion after a baby bath help prevent rashes?
Newborns are prone to the odd rash here and there. They seem to come and go all the time but a lotion may make improve it or make it worse. So unless it’s diaper rash or a very dry rash, leave well alone.
If the rash persists or is combined with symptoms of illness (temperature, sleepiness, loss of interest in surroundings or appetite, significantly more or less dirty or wet diapers) then seek professional advice promptly.
Diaper rash can be prevented and treated by regular application of this diaper cream.
I’ve learnt how to sponge bathe my newborn, but when is baby ready for a regular bath?
Your newborn will be ready for a tub bath as soon as that umbilical cord has fallen off, or if you’re confident you can avoid getting the umbilical cord wet, you can start a tub bath a little earlier.
Is it better to bathe my newborn baby in the morning or at night?
This is up to you. The most important thing is you have adequate time and don’t have to rush and can avoid being interrupted.
Another consideration is how much your newborn enjoys a sponge bath. It can be a lovely start to a bedtime routine, but only if it calms and soothes. If it upsets your newborn, rather bathe her at a different time.
How long should you wait to bathe a newborn after feeding?
Bathing a newborn with a very full tummy could mean some extra spills and regurgitation so ideally give her a good 5-10 minutes in a more upright position before sponge bathing.
The first sponge bath at home might seem scary when handling a newborn baby
But practice makes perfect and you’re going to get plenty of that so you’ll be a bathing pro in no time.
Hang in there and enjoy those first baths; they can be such a special time for you and your newborn. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you could even pass this task over to your partner, just be sure to share all the ins and outs of how to bathe a newborn first!