How to bathe a newborn or older baby

baby in bath tub
Photo credit: Cameron Whitman

Your baby's first bath is an exciting – if slightly nerve-wracking– newborn milestone. While not all newborns appreciate a bath, splashing around will most likely eventually become enjoyable for both of you. As babies get older, baths can become a fun and relaxing part of their bedtime routine.

Baby baths are relatively straightforward once you get the hang of them, but there are a few basics to keep in mind for your child's health and safety. That's especially true in the first few weeks after birth, and as your baby transitions to the baby tub and the big tub.

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Read on to learn baby bath basics, including how and when to bathe a newborn and older baby.

When can I give my newborn a bath?

Experts now recommend waiting to give your newborn their first bath until 24 hours after birth (or at least 6 hours, if you need to bathe them earlier for cultural reasons). Doing so helps to prevent a drop in your baby's body temperature and blood sugar, avoids drying out their skin, and supports bonding and breastfeeding.

Until your baby's umbilical cord stump falls off, which usually happens within the first three weeks of birth, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends giving your baby sponge baths. That's because keeping the stump clean and dry helps to prevent infection as it heals.

For the same reason, you'll want to skip full-body baths for circumcised newborn boys. If circumcision isn't done immediately after birth, avoid immersion baths for the first two days after the procedure.

You can bathe your baby at any time of the day, depending on what works best for both of you. Some parents make newborn baths part of a stimulating morning routine, while others find it's a calming way to wind down at night before bed.

Try to choose a time when your baby is in a good mood and you're not rushed. Also, avoid giving your baby a bath immediately after a feeding, to give them time to digest.

How to give your newborn a sponge bath

Until your newborn is ready for full-body baths, give them sponge baths:

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  • Fill a basin with warm water, then wrap your baby in a towel and lie them on a comfortable surface. Always keep one hand on your baby and your baby covered with a towel.
  • Dip a clean washcloth in the water and clean their face, starting at the bridge of the nose and wiping over their eyes. Clean the outer folds of the ear with a corner of the washcloth (avoid cotton swabs).
  • Use the washcloth to wipe the rest of your baby's body from the neck down, only uncovering the parts of the body you're cleaning. You don't need to use soap – it can be drying for sensitive newborn skin. If you do, use a mild, moisturizing soap made for babies.

For little messes like milk dribbles on your newborn's chin or neck, you can spot-clean with a damp washcloth. Once or twice a day, wipe down your baby's face, neck, and hands, as well as the folds of their skin (thighs, armpits) as needed. And thoroughly clean their genital area with wipes after each diaper change.

Many newborns have scaly, peeling skin on their scalp – a harmless condition known as cradle cap. It won't bother your baby, and it's perfectly fine to leave it alone until it goes away on its own. But if it really bothers you, you can try to remove the scales by washing your baby's hair with baby shampoo and gently passing a soft-bristled brush over your baby's scalp.

How often to bathe a newborn

Give your newborn a bath two or three times a week. Newborns don't sweat like adults or get dirty like toddlers, so frequent baths aren't a necessity. Plus, bathing your baby too often can dry out their delicate skin. Of course, more frequent baths may be in order when your baby starts eating solids and crawling!

Some babies find the warm water very soothing. If this is the case with your little one, let them linger in the tub and make a bath part of your daily routine.

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Others cry through the whole bath. If your newborn protests, go back to sponge baths for a week or two and try again later. Otherwise, it's fine to get them in and out quickly. Baths don't need to take a lot of time: A few minutes is long enough to get your baby clean before the water cools down.

How to bathe a newborn

Bathing your newborn in the tub may feel a little scary at first. Handling a wiggling, wet, and soapy little person takes practice and confidence. Here's what to do:

  1. Gather all your bath supplies (including mild soap, a washcloth or two, a cup for rinsing, towel, diaper, and fresh outfit), and lay them out within reaching distance of your bathtub. You may also want to have diaper rash cream and/or baby lotion nearby.
  2. Fill a baby bathtub with about 2 inches of water that feels warm, but not hot, to the inside of your wrist.
  3. Bring your baby to the bath area and undress them completely, then put them in the bath immediately so they don't get cold. Use one hand to support your baby's head and the other hand to guide their feet in first. Pour bath water over your newborn regularly during the bath so they don't get too cold. Keeping a warm, wet washcloth over your newborn's body may help them feel secure.
  4. Always keep one hand on your baby. Never leave your baby alone, not even for a second. If you need to answer the door or get forgotten bathing supplies, wrap your baby in a towel and bring them with you.
  5. Start by washing your baby's eyes using a wet washcloth, moving from the bridge of the nose outward, then wipe down the rest of your baby's face and the outer folds of the ear (don't use cotton swabs).
  6. Wet your baby's head and rub mild baby soap or shampoo into their scalp using your washcloth. Rinse carefully, keeping the water from running into your baby's face and eyes.
  7. Use the washcloth to gently wipe off the rest of your baby's body from the top down, including between their fingers, under their arms, in leg creases, in the diaper area, and between their toes. Use soap sparingly if at all, as it can dry out your baby's skin, and don't rub or tug at skin. (Learn more about caring for your baby's body.)
  8. Rinse your baby thoroughly with cupfuls of water from the tub.
  9. Very carefully lift your baby out of the tub with one hand supporting their neck and head and the other hand supporting their bottom.
  10. Wrap your baby in a towel, being sure to cover their head, and pat them dry. The AAP recommends applying an unscented baby lotion after the bath to help prevent dry skin and eczema. You can also apply diaper rash cream if necessary.
  11. Diaper and dress your baby, and give them a kiss on their sweet little head.

What's the ideal baby bath temperature?

Your baby's bath should feel warm, not hot, to the back of your wrist. Babies like slightly cooler water than adults. If you're using a bath thermometer, aim for around 100 degrees F.

Tips for bathing an older baby

Your baby will be ready to move from a baby tub to a regular bathtub when they're able to sit without support, at around 6 to 8 months old.

Though your older baby is more stable and independent than a newborn, it's still crucial to keep them safe in the tub. Drowning can happen quickly in just an inch or two of water. Always be sure to stay within arm's reach of your baby, and keep bath supplies where you can easily grab them. Never leave your baby unattended for even a moment.

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Bathing can get more challenging when you have an older and more active baby. Giving your baby lots of bath toys – such as containers, foam bath letters, and waterproof blocks – can help keep them entertained while you get them clean. If your child enjoys bathing, don't rush it – this will help them to feel more comfortable in the water.

Use soaps and shampoos sparingly, because they can dry out your baby's delicate skin. Avoid bath oils and bubble bath, which can be especially irritating. In baby girls, sitting in soapy water can lead to vulvovaginitis, irritation of the vulva and vagina.

One solution is to let your child play at the beginning of the bath, and wash up with soap and shampoo at the end so they aren't sitting in soapy water for an extended period.

How to keep your baby safe during baths

Two-thirds of all drownings in infants under 1 year old happen in bathtubs. Make sure to supervise your baby closely during baths and any other time they're in or near the water.

  • Stay within arm's distance of your baby at all times when they're anywhere near water, including the bathtub.
  • Never leave your baby unsupervised or under the supervision of another child, even for a moment. If you need to leave the bathroom while your child is in the bath, wrap them in a towel and take them with you.
  • Don't let your phone – or anything else – distract you from watching your baby while they're in the bath.
  • Don't use an infant bath seat. They can tip over or your baby can slip out, leading to drowning in just a couple of inches of water.
  • For younger babies, use a baby bathtub that supports your baby and prevents sliding with a sloped, textured surface or a sling. Make sure it meets current safety standards.
  • Don't put your baby into a tub when the water is still running: The water can quickly get too deep or hot.
  • Set your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A child can get third-degree burns in six seconds at 140 degrees.
  • For older babies and children who use the regular bathtub, childproof your tub. Line the tub with a rubber mat to make it less slippery, and consider putting a cushioned cover over the spout to protect your child's head from bumps.
  • Keep electric appliances (like hair dryers and curling irons) and sharp objects (like scissors) far away from the tub.
  • Teach your older baby or toddler to sit (not stand up) in the tub at all times and to only get out of the bath with your help.
  • Drain the tub immediately after your child's bath, since standing water is a drowning hazard. You may even want to remove the plug and store it out of your child's reach when the bathtub isn't in use.
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BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

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Colleen de Bellefonds
Colleen de Bellefonds is a freelance health and lifestyle journalist. She's raising her toddler daughter and newborn son with her French husband in Paris.