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From Sponge Baths to Tub Baths: Step-by-Step Tips

Bathing a baby can fill a new parent with trepidation. You're still not entirely comfortable handling this tiny person, and it feels awkward getting her in and out of that little tub. The fact that your baby is not likely to be happy about her first real bath -- and may express her annoyance rather loudly -- doesn't help your state of mind.

Don't worry. It won't take long until bath time is one of her favorite rituals. She'll perk up as soon as she hears the water running, and you'll have a hard time coaxing her out of the tub. In the meantime, here's your reward: There's nothing more delicious than the scent (and sight) of a freshly bathed baby bundled in a towel.

The end result of a bath is definitely one of the best photo opportunities you'll ever have. Here's how to bathe a baby, plus a collection of the supplies you need.

Sponge Bath Supplies

  • Baby body wash (often can double as shampoo)
  • Two washcloths
  • A towel
  • A bowl of warm water
  • Several cotton balls
  • Lotion (optional)
  • A diaper
  • An outfit to change baby into

Baby's First Sponge Bath

Baby won't be ready for the infant tub until the umbilical cord stump falls off (and the circumcision has healed, if your son had the procedure), which usually takes about two weeks. In the meantime, you'll be giving him a sponge bath.

1. Wash baby's face before you take off any of his clothing. Dampen a cotton ball or washcloth and wipe his eyelids from the inside corner out. Use one cotton ball for each eye. With another damp cotton ball, clean around his nose.
2. To clean outside baby's ears, use a damp cotton swab or washcloth. Don't clean inside baby's ears; using a swab could puncture his eardrum.
3. To shampoo, support his spine and hold his head back slightly. Sprinkle his head with warm water and squeeze on a drop or two of soap. Lather, scrub gently, and rinse with a wet washcloth.
4. Dry baby's head with a towel.
5. Now you can undress him and lay him flat.
6. Put a little bit of soap (don't overdo it; newborn skin is prone to irritation) on a soft washcloth to wash his body.
7. When he's clean, pat him dry with a towel, apply lotion if you like, and get him dressed.

Sponge Bath Tips

  • "Down there" care: If your son was circumcised, do not attempt to pull back the foreskin; in fact, until the circumcision wound heals, avoid using soap on the area. After the penis has healed, you can wash it as you would any other part of his body. Clean a girl's genitals by wiping from front to back. Don't use soap in her groin area; it may cause irritation.
  • Location, location: "Bathing my newborn on my bed (I put a towel on top of a plastic tablecloth) works well. I talk to her softly, play relaxing music, and she never cries."
    --C. Smith
  • Warm and dry: Newborns get cold quickly. Try to dry and cover with a towel the areas you just washed to keep your baby as warm as possible.

It's Tub Time

Once baby's umbilical cord stump has fallen off, he's ready for a bath in his mini tub. At this age, a baby doesn't get very dirty; he only needs a bath a few times a week.

1. Gather your supplies (same as for sponge baths) and fill the tub with a couple inches of warm water -- it should be slightly cooler than your ideal temperature, as baby's skin is more sensitive.
2. Gently lower baby into the tub as you support his head and neck with your arm.
3. Clean his face just like you did when sponge-bathing him.
4. When baby's all clean, dry him while you're still sitting, so you don't have to stand from a kneeling position.
5. Apply lotion once baby's dry -- and breathe deeply.

On to the Big Bath

Once your baby can sit up securely on her own, usually by 6 months, she's ready for the big bathtub. The baby who might have fussed during bath time now doesn't want it to end! Her new, roomier space makes it much easier and more fun to splash.

Big bath safety: By now you're a pro at bathing, but there are some safety concerns to be aware of:

  • Don't turn your back on your baby for even a second -- babies can drown in just a few inches of water.
  • If the phone rings and you must answer it, take her with you wrapped in a towel. Better yet, let the answering machine pick it up.
  • Set your water heater to 120 degrees F. That way, if your baby turns the hot water faucet handle, she won't get scalded.

I put some butterflies on the ceiling above the tub. When I want my baby to look up so she won't get soap in her eyes, I ask "Where are the butterflies?" -- Alicia Lucio

Instead of pouring water on baby's head, use a turkey baster to gently get his head wet and rinse the soap off. -- Elene Fox

I hang a plastic tub mirror on the wall so that my daughter can watch me shampoo her hair. I make funny hairdos with the lather. She loves it. -- Courtney Barton

I use the suds to make a horn on each of my two boys' heads. They like playing monster with one another and don't mind the shampoo. -- Kathryn Thomas

I use a plastic watering can on my son's hair to wet and rinse it. I'm able to control the flow better and he likes to be watered so he can "grow." -- Christy Farris

I let my daughter choose her own shampoo. I also let her her "help" rinse her hair with the cup. She doesn't get as upset when she's the one who puts water on her face. -- Kristi Russo

To keep from splashing into baby's eyes, use the squirt bottle they gave you at the hospital. -- Candi Derr

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2005.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.