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; it’s also far beyond the intent of the term “delayed bathing.” I felt some guilt about it… thanks, Guilt Trips, 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 the juices in which they arrived (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. For all intents and purposes, we kept our child clean.

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. I learned how to breastfeed, diaper, and swaddle my baby because they helped me experience those tasks.
    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 – indicating a healed stump – 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 expect myself to complete something perfectly, such as my baby’s best first bath ever.)

It’s not that I didn’t have helpers in my life, either. Lots of experienced moms, including my own, offered to do it with me. I also received the advice to “sponge bathe in 2-3 inches of water.” Still was not motivated, so I kept procrastinating… and googling 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.” Just saying. It’s the guilt.) 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 risky to me. Yet this became one of the best learning experiences in my momhood: I set aside my expectations, listened to my gut, and let everything work for both of us. Turns out, what worked for others didn’t instill me with confidence, but I found a solution that did. If you feel a bit disconcerted like I did, or wondered if there were other options besides sponge-bathing, read on.

Newborn Baby’s First Bath: Types of Baths
In my scouring of the 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, the nurses reported that 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. Newborn babies who received a sponge bath showed signs of distress and discomfort, squirmed and cried, had lower body temperatures, and their mothers reported lower 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.]

After reading the study, I wouldn’t change a thing about our first bath. Personally, it’s a validating testament to my instincts at work. Mom Guilt gone. Listen to those mama instincts when you feel them, and do what feels good.

How To Give Your Newborn the First Bath
Once you’re ready to try BATHS(!), you’ve released your expectations, and your pediatrician has given you the go ‘head, get your supplies ready.

Prepping is a good idea in my book… it helps me feel focused. Babies pick up on our emotional energy, so they appreciate it, too. Also, keep it simple… the bath itself takes 3 minutes, tops.

Will you be co-bathing or putting baby in her own tub? Doesn’t matter… get your camera.

These are my favorite newborn bath essentials for you:

    1. Towel(s) – this hooded one knocks it out of the park bc it’s an apron AND has top-notch absorption.
    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 skip it unless there’s poop.

  1. Fill your tub of choice with warm water, about 100 degrees (slightly warmer than her body temperature)… feel the water yourself to check the temperature. 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 2-3 soft washcloths, 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 feed her warm milk, 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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