One of the most common questions new parents ask has recently become the focus of an ongoing social media debate among celebrity parents, including Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, and Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell: How often should I bathe my baby?
Some parents bathe their babies daily as part of a bedtime routine or due to regular baby messes, from extra spit-up to diaper blowouts. But for most families, bathing the baby two to three times a week is plenty after the first couple of weeks of life.
In fact, we recommend delaying your newborn’s first full bath for at least two weeks. Newborns shed about three layers of skin within their first week, which often surprises new parents. Their skin is still adjusting to the dry air, so it’s perfectly normal. You can prevent further skin irritation by moisturizing your baby with chemical-free lotion and washing their clothes with a gentle, chemical-free detergent before dressing them.
After that first two-week period, it’s OK to bathe your baby a couple times a week. You can follow this schedule through your child’s elementary school years. Of course, you should modify the bath schedule based on your baby’s skin health and your family’s lifestyle.
3 benefits of delaying your newborn’s first bath
- Temperature regulation
During delivery, your baby experiences a sudden contrast in climate as they enter a dry environment from the fluid-filled amniotic sac. This causes their skin to easily dry out, crack, and peel – especially when babies are born further along in the gestation period.
- Prevent dry skin
Your baby will be born with a coating of vernix caseosa on their skin. This creamy, waxy build-up consists mostly of water, lipids, and proteins and promotes better temperature regulation and softer skin after birth.
Frequent bathing results in drier skin at any age. So, to help prevent dry skin, we wait up to 24 hours before wiping off the vernix caseosa. However, if the mother has an infection that could be transmitted to the baby, such as HIV or herpes, we clean the newborn right away.
- Breastfeeding benefits
Studies have shown that delaying baby’s first bath can also lead to more success with breastfeeding, as it increases skin-to-skin contact between the baby and mother. And by staying warmer longer, babies are less tired and irritated when learning to latch.
Related reading: 5 tips for successful breastfeeding
Newborn bathing tips
During the first two weeks of life, we recommend giving your newborn sponge baths a couple of times a week using room-temperature water, a soft cloth, and a gentle baby soap free of dyes and scents. Starting with the head and ending with their diaper area, you should lightly stroke their skin, paying close attention to creases, folds, elbows, knees, fingers, and toes.
Carefully avoid the umbilical cord. Keeping it dry will allow it to fall off and heal. If you immerse your baby in water before this happens, the umbilical cord will take longer to fall off or develop an infection called omphalitis, which can spread to surrounding tissues quickly and become dangerous. In rare instances, it can be life-threatening.
Baby bathing basics
After two weeks, you can submerge more of your baby’s body in water, but always keep two key factors in mind:
- Water depth: You only need a few inches of water for the first couple of years. A baby bath seat, while not necessary, can help keep your baby upright and steady. Most importantly, never leave your baby unattended in the bath, whether they’re in the kitchen sink or a full-size tub. They can slip under the water in seconds.
- Temperature: Babies’ skin is sensitive and can burn quickly. Check the water temperature before placing your baby in the bath; it should be 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit. We also recommend lowering your water heater temperature settings so if the tap is accidentally bumped or adjusted during the bath, it can’t get hot enough to harm the baby.
If traditional bathing methods prove frustrating for you and your baby, you can try a swaddle bath. Studies have shown it is less stressful for premature infants, and it can ease you into bathing. To perform a swaddle bath, wrap your baby loosely in a swaddling cloth and gently place them in the water, up to their shoulders. Uncover, wash, and rinse one body part at a time to help your baby stay warmer and calmer.
Whichever method you choose, the bath should only last five to 10 minutes. Apply a fragrance-free lotion afterward to help prevent dryness.
Clean and clear – special circumstances
When you’re bathing your baby two or three times a week, skin hygiene is critical:
- Stool can quickly irritate the skin, so change your baby’s diapers frequently, and wipe thoroughly – using a front-to-back motion for female babies.
- While bathing a circumcised male baby, shake the water slightly so it runs over the penis. Do the same for an uncircumcised male, but gently retract the foreskin first – you won’t be able to pull it back very far, so don’t force it or worry you’re not being thorough.
- If your baby has cradle cap, a scalp condition that causes scaly patches to appear on the skin, you can wash the affected area with an anti-dandruff shampoo or gently rub it with a soft brush and baby oil. Use a gentle, circular motion to pull up the skin flakes; rubbing too hard can pull out hair and the underlying layers of skin.
Use the same brushing method for skin rashes, such as eczema or diaper dermatitis. Harsh soaps can cause rash flare-ups, which is another reason to use mild, chemical-free soaps and bathe your baby less often. After cleaning the affected areas, apply a thick layer of Vaseline or Aquaphor to moisturize the skin and protect it from further irritation. Use more than you think you need; most new parents don’t use enough.
Create your own routine
As your child gets older, their bathing cadence can continue to be around three times a week. The older they get, the more they tend to run around and get dirty or sweaty, so bathing frequency should vary based on their activity level.
Some families prefer to create a bedtime routine for their baby as soon as possible, and this typically includes a bath, followed by a feeding. For other families, bath time is a bonding experience or a fun way for their child to play. If daily baths (or showers for older children) work best for your child and lifestyle, be sure to sufficiently and consistently moisturize their skin.
One thing we always emphasize with new parents: Whether your child is 6 months or 16 years old, do what works best for you. What matters is that they’re safe and clean. Other than that, no two families’ bathing habits need to be the same.