When to Start Tub Baths?
Give your baby a sponge bath until his umbilical cord has fallen off. (If he's been circumcised, wait until that heals too.) After that, he'll be ready for a baby bathtub. Choose one that has a contoured design or an internal sling that prevents your baby from sliding. Never use a bath seat -- these can tip over when the suction cups fail, trapping your child underwater.
What's the Right Temperature?
Fill the tub with a couple of inches of lukewarm water. "Before you place your baby in the tub, check the temperature by dipping your elbow into the water -- it should be warm but not too hot," says Parents adviser Jennifer Shu, M.D., coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn. Keep testing the temp as you go. When it gets too cool, bathtime's over.
When & How Often to Bathe?
Your baby doesn't need a bath every day; two or three times a week is fine as long as you clean his face, neck, hands, and diaper area daily. As for time of day, some newborns find the water stimulating, so it's great to get them splashing first thing in the morning. Others mellow out in the tub, which makes it perfect right before bedtime.
Which Soap to Use?
Use a washcloth with water and a mild baby wash. "Look for products that don't have added perfume or dyes, which can irritate sensitive skin," says Parents adviser Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Baby 411. Work a good lather into a washcloth before you start. Cradle your newborn's head with one arm while you bathe her with the other.
Which Shampoo to Use?
If your baby's hair seems dirty, wet it down using a damp washcloth sans soap every day -- no need to bring out the tub. Once or twice a week, during his baths, use baby soap or a drop of mild, tear-free shampoo. If he's developed cradle cap (scaly patches that appear on the scalp) loosen the scales with a soft-bristle baby brush while you shampoo.
How to Keep Baby Safe
Set everything you'll need within arm's reach -- soap, washcloth, towel, diaper, change of clothes -- before you start so that you can keep one hand on your baby at all times. When you're done bathing him, quickly wrap him up in the towel so he doesn't lose too much body heat. Dry him thoroughly, being sure to get into the creases, before you diaper and dress him. Also, don't forget to:
- Learn infant CPR. And never leave your baby alone in a bathtub or in the care of another child, even for half a minute.
- Set your water heater to 120 degrees F. so your baby won't get scalded if he accidentally turns on the faucet.
- Use a spout cover so he doesn't hit his head on the faucet.
- Place a nonskid mat beneath your baby tub to prevent it from slipping.
- Empty the tub completely immediately after each use -- a baby can drown in as little as 1 inch of water.
- Keep the toilet seat and bathroom doors closed after you leave.
What If Baby Hates Bathtime?
Some babies absolutely love taking a baths. Others not so much. "If your baby hates the tub, don't force him to stay in the water," says Dr. Shu. Instead, put him on a blanket or a towel and use a damp, warm washcloth to clean his face and body. Work on one body part at a time and keep the rest of him covered. Ease him back into the tub routine slowly. You might buy a few bathtime-only toys so he gets excited to play with something new. First, let him watch as you dunk the toys into the bathwater. After a few minutes, let the toys float and see if he reaches for them; if he does, try dipping his feet then his legs into the tub. "Babies aren't naturally afraid of the water," says Dr. Shu. "But they can be scared of the noise of running water or if water gets in their eyes." Fill the tub when he's out of the room, and be extra careful when you wash his face.
Big Tub Transition
Once your baby can sit up on his own (generally between 7 and 9 months), make the transition to the big tub. Fill it just to cover your child's legs and always keep a hand on him to prevent slipping. Drop in a plastic boat or windup toy to keep him entertained. Some babies seem particularly averse to hair washing, so pour water slowly over your child's head and shield his eyes with your hand to keep suds from getting in them. Try soothing him with a round of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or another favorite tune, or get into the tub with him.
What If He Pees?
Don't panic if he pees or poops in the bath. "Urine is sterile, so it's okay to just keep going," says Dr. O'Shea. "You'll need to drain the tub if he poops, but your baby won't get sick as long as it doesn't get in his mouth."
Originally published in Parents magazine. Updated 2012.