Infant Bathing Techniques, Part 1: Newborns & the Best First Bath

Mamas, guess how long I waited to bathe Molly… long enough that my mom and husband and friends started giving me flack. Almost 3 weeks.

I wonder, though: how unusual is that, actually? Or is it pretty common? In the grand scheme of things, does timing matter or is the baby/parent experience more important? These are the questions that motivated me to write this post.

This post is part of a series called Infant Bathing Techniques. My goal is to support parents in raising lifelong swimmers with much of the early “work” taking place at home in the bath, a great place to encourage play in the water. In this particular post, I cover:

  • Our experience with delayed bathing
  • Molly’s first bath
  • Research behind a couple of types of baths for newborns
  • How to give your baby her first bath, stress-free
  • My 4 favorite bath essentials

Delayed Bathing
No, waiting 3 weeks wasn’t intentional. I felt some guilt about it because of external feedback I received (story of my life!) and have since L E T   I T   G O. 🙂 The hospital where Molly was born – and many other hospitals – do not bathe newborn babies as a standard practice. Aside from cleaning off any meconium or blood, they let babies marinate in vernix for many good reasons. Once we were home, we cleaned Molly with wipes when she spit up or pooped, and intended to give her a bath once her belly button had healed.

I chalk up “the 3 week wait” to:

  1.  Delayed bathing (have you heard of it?) This is numero uno for a reason. The benefits seem to be enormous, and we were certainly on-board! The downside to the hospital’s not bathing my baby is that I didn’t learn how, whereas they helped me learn breastfeeding, diapering, and swaddling.
    If you haven’t heard of delayed bathing or vernix, read this for a brief description and links to more info.
  2. Waiting for her umbilical cord stump to heal and fall off (like our pediatrician recommended)
  3. The stomach flu that caught Trevor (fortunately, Molly and I did not catch it!)
  4. Trevor going back to work (I wanted him to join the fun, too.)

Molly was exactly one week old when her umbilical cord fell off, and our pediatrician recommended waiting for that to happen before submerging her in a bath. My understanding is that keeping the stump dry helps prevent infection and helps it heal. I fully intended to give Molly her first bath after that point, but every time I thought about it, I procrastinated. (I do that when I want to complete something perfectly – such as the best first bath – but don’t know how to start. Annoying.)

It’s not that I didn’t have helpers in my life, either. Lots of experienced moms, including my own who offered to do it with me, recommended “sponge bathing in 2-3 inches of water.” This didn’t trigger inspiration in me, so I waited… and googled phrases like, “best way to bathe your newborn baby” and “best bath for newborns.”

Molly’s First Bath
Suddenly, 3 weeks had passed and one evening, Trevor said to me, “Molly smells like puke.” (By “puke,” he actually meant “baby spit up.”) Kind of embarrassing for a new mom to hear… so I bit the bullet and (the next day) just WENT for it. I gathered towels, wash cloths, and her baby rocker. I filled our bathtub with warm water. I climbed in and gave Molly her first bath in my lap.

Can I just say that learning something new sometimes feels really hard?! Bathing a tiny floppy baby felt verrrry foreign to me, as I had zero experience with newborns, and this was the one of the best learning experiences as a mom: following my gut and letting it work for both of us. Turns out, what worked for others didn’t instill me with confidence, but I found a solution that did. Hopefully this little guide below will help you with bathing if you feel a bit disconcerted the same way I did.

Newborn Baby’s First Bath: Types of Baths
In my scouring of Les Interwebs for any and all newborn baby bath information, I came across a study done by Janet Bryanton, RN, MN, and three other nurses in a Prince Edward Island hospital in Canada. They conducted a randomized controlled study on 102 newborn babies and their mothers about the effects of tub bathing or sponge bathing. Their research is published here.

To cut to the chase, submerging a newborn to her shoulders in water about 100 degrees (a tad warmer than body temp) is a more relaxing and stress-free method of bathing than a traditional sponge bath. Newborns in the study who took a submerged bath behaved calmly, maintained their body temperatures, and their mothers reported more confidence and contentment on a 1 to 5 scale.

The newborn babies who received a sponge bath showed signs of distress and discomfort, squirmed and cried, had lower body temperature, and their mothers reported less satisfaction with the bathing experience. [Since looking at their study and googling more, I also came across swaddled bathing in the NICU here. There are some very sweet photos to go along with their tutorial on submerged tub bathing preterm or sick babies who are lightly swaddled.]

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t change a thing about our first bath. I simply climbed into the warm bathtub with her and did my best to keep her warm; I can’t believe I felt Mom Guilt over this. I always felt like I should have known how to give my baby a sponge bath. I could have accomplished a submerged bath by placing her in a warm water bath in her baby tub, too.

Listen to those mama instincts when you find them and do what builds your confidence.

How To Give Your Newborn the First Bath
Once you’re ready to try BATHS(!), and your pediatrician has given you the go ‘head (we waited until Molly’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off and healed), get your supplies ready. Prepping is always a good idea in my book… it helps me feel confident and calm anyway. No sense in projecting the opposite! My baby appreciates it. 😉 Also, keep it simple… the bath itself takes like, 3 minutes, tops.

Regardless of what method you choose, I linked my 4 favorite newborn bath essentials for you to make life that much easier:

    1. Towel(s) – this hooded one knocks it out of the park bc it’s an apron! Linked so you can see pictures of it in action…
    2. Washcloths
      Basic. 🙂
    3. Baby tub
      or for a smaller footprint
    4. Baby rocker (it will live in your bathroom; get 2.)

Soap can dry out a newborn’s skin, so we skipped it.

  1. Fill your tub of choice with warm water… use your hand to check the temperature. I make it as warm as I would want. Tell your baby the steps you are taking.
  2. Undress your baby. If the tub isn’t ready yet, wrap her in blanket to keep her warm.
  3. Supporting her head, neck, and bottom, hold her in tummy-to-tummy snuggle hold. Then, gently lower your baby into the water if she’s in a baby tub, keeping her head and mouth above the surface. Try leaving the swaddle on if you feel like it, or take it off prior to submerging her.
  4. If she’s bathing with you, place her in her baby rocker before climbing into the tub and sitting down. Then place your hands behind her head and bottom and lift your baby out of the rocker into a tummy-to-tummy snuggle hold. Once she’s settled, lower her onto her back on your lap.
  5. Using warm water and a soft washcloth, gently wipe her eyes and face. Then wash under her chin, neck, and chest, anywhere she’d spit up. Wash her armpits, arms, and hands. Then wash her bottom, legs, and feet. Save her hair for last. If you need to use a little baby soap, pump a tiny amount onto her head, and rinse well.
  6. Bundle her in a cozy towel. This is a busy event for a newborn, even if it’s less than 5 minutes. I’d nurse her or give her a bottle, followed by a clean diaper and a nap.

We bathed Molly every 2-3 days. Check with your pediatrician on the current bathing practices, when to begin, and how often to bathe your baby.

Like the goal of the blog? Subscribe! Then read Part 2. 🙂


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