Infant Bathing Techniques, Part 3: Water on the Face

Updated June 21, 2017

All babies need warmth, love, and responsiveness. With this in mind, each baby is unique, so however you decide to bathe your baby, give her what she needs to feel comfortable in the water. One suggestion I make is to try bathing with your infant from time to time. Skin-to–skin touch boosts oxytocin in the brain, it’s a lovely way to bond, and it may be a great opportunity to show your baby with your full contact that the bath is a safe, soothing environment. Some of my suggestions below are better suited for baby tubs, while others assume you are in the tub with your baby because that’s what worked for us… do what’s comfortable for you and your child.

This post covers:

  • Why water on the face is essential for safety
  • Infant Bathing Techniques: developmentally appropriate methods and techniques we tried with Molly to introduce water on the face
  • Molly’s bath stories

This post is part of my Infant Bathing Techniques series. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of the Infant Bathing Techniques series. My overall goal is to set kids up for success as swimmers via bath time. “Part 3: Water on the Face” includes how we helped Molly adjust to the feeling of water on her face in her infancy.

Between 1 and 3 months: Introduce Water on the Face

As Molly grew from newborn to infant, I looked for opportunities to introduce gentle sensory experiences. One of these experiences included introducing her to the feeling of water on her face. I had seen how problematic this issue had been for many of my students in swimming lessons. I have adult friends who learned to only swim head-high, and in adulthood, cannot physically put their heads underwater (their bodies tense up when they try to.) And while I’d agree that knowing how to swim with your head held above water is better than not swimming at all, the goal of this blog is to teach children how to be safe swimmers.

Why is swimming with your face in the water a safety concern? Head-high swimming burns through a novice swimmer’s energy supply (lifeguards and water polo players swim this way, but are clearly not beginners…) An efficient swimmer conserves energy, and this is really important if a swimmer gets into trouble in deep water and needs to swim toward safety.

More pressingly however, a baby or toddler who is comfortable with water on her face has an additional tool to use to self-rescue when she inevitably loses her footing while playing in shallow water. Lifeguards know shallow water situations are just as dangerous for toddlers, if not more-so, than deep water:

  • Parents and caregivers “defenses” are lower
  • Babies and toddlers might look like they are playing, having most of their heads above water except their noses or mouths
  • Slipping underwater is typically quiet (drowning is not usually splashy, like it’s portrayed in movies)

Parents need to watch their children closely and be ready to assist them at any moment.

Introducing water on the face is an infant bathing technique that can help prevent or reduce fear (either in anticipation of swimming or in the midst of a rescue situation), and sets up children for learning to swim through exploratory play in the water.

Children with positive associations of water on the face have more confidence in the water (a safe thing!) and are able to make better progress. This is why learning to swim with your face in the water is essential for safety, and why we decided to get Molly’s face wet almost right away when she was an amenable infant.

We introduced Molly to the sensation of water on the face by trying these methods, which I refer to as Infant Bathing Techniques. For babies 1- to 3-months old:

  • Tell baby what you will do each step of the way. Hearing your voice is calming and great for language development!
  • Start with very minimal amounts of water, especially the first many times.
  • Pour small amounts of water: on the crown of her head and down her back. Later, name her body parts as you rinse. Molly loved this… “let’s pour it on your arm. Let’s pour it on your other arm.”
  • Wipe her face with water (away from her eyes, nose, and mouth.) Later, try letting water trickle over her eyes, cheeks, and on the bridge of her nose. (Molly blinked it away. Sometimes, she also “startled.”)
  • Blow a puff of air into your baby’s face to trigger a reflex to hold her breath. I used this tool while teaching parent / tot swim lessons. (If you’re curious about “the gasp”, read more about the mammalian diving reflex in babies on Popular Science’s website.) Later, try it right before taking her under the shower spray.
  • Shower the back of her head. Say, “here we go,” take her under the shower for a second. Come right back out and say, “all done.” Later, try letting the water run over her face (while keeping her upright and held close to your body.) Also try standing under the shower for a couple seconds, gradually prolonging the time.

If you want more, here’s the exact Molly Bath rundown at this age:

  • Sitting in her baby tub: Our tub is the First Years Newborn to Toddler tub… Great for cleaning baby when you can’t or don’t want to get in the tub.
  • On my lap in the tub: I loved snuggling Molly in the water (and on land.) I’d fill the tub to cover my legs and lay her in the cradle of my lap lengthwise. Molly’s legs scrunched up to my squishy mama belly, her toes nestling into my tummy. We talked, made eye contact, and sang. She could nurse easily. I’d raise and lower her into the water, while keeping her head and face dry, or shampooing her hair and rinsing it. It was simple to transfer her into a back float by cupping the base of her skull in one hand and guiding her back with the other, letting the water buoy and “drift” her body (while keeping her mouth and nose out.)
  • In the shower: We have great traction on the floor of our tub, and we felt comfortable navigating the shower when the two of us were free to support each other. Our number one goal is always to help Molly feel safe, so if we weren’t feeling that way, we took a pass. Two things we approached cautiously: first, our footing; some showers are so slippery… and second: our baby’s slipperiness in our arms. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised when Molly wasn’t as slick as I thought she’d be. We’d hold her upright on our chests, and she’d go completely still. From here, easy rinsing!

Infant Bathing Techniques: Water on the Face

Remember, learning takes time. Take it easy, go slow, and give your baby what she needs in order to feel comfortable. I believe in your baby’s ability to learn this and in your ability to show her how!

If you haven’t yet, follow our Pool Mom Facebook page and share your baby bath stories! We love reading them… our friend Allison shared Baby Hudson’s sink story. Click the link to see her nugget in his favorite Angelcare bath tub.

Safe swimming, everyone!Pool Mom Blog Signature

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