I did a talk last weekend at the Baby Expo Chicago on this topic, so I thought, "Why not release it into the internet wild? Surely other parents and parents-to-be could make use of something in this." And here we are. Welcome!
Okay, let’s jump right in, because we have a lot to cover: baby bathing basics. Y’all like that alliteration? I came up with it myself. I’m an inventor - coming up with ideas is kinda my thing.
For those of you that have never given a baby a bath before, let me just warn you that we are going to be talking about some things here that are not topics you want to bring up over cocktails or dinner, but I'm doing this now because I care about you and want you to be prepared. For me, that first bath was one of the most terrifying experiences of being a new parent. I still hadn’t gotten over the whole umbilical stump thing and I had a newborn girl who I quickly found out did not like baths. At all.
Before we get to newborn bathing, though, I just want to come back to the strangeness that is the umbilical stump. If you are not familiar with what an umbilical stump is, you’re in for a treat and you MUST read on. I had no idea it was even a thing, let alone how to care for it. I must have been playing Words with Friends or something when we talked about them in my birthing class. Or maybe I had to the bathroom for the 16th time that hour. Who knows? Let me give you the overview so you can be prepared: Umbilical stumps are pretty much one of the weirdest things about pregnancy and birth right behind the placenta and the fact that all your organs get smushed under your ribcage during pregnancy. After the baby is born, your doctor will cut the umbilical cord close to the baby’s belly button, and that small piece that is left connected...that, my friends, is the umbilical stump. It starts off kinda greenish-yellowish color and changes to black as it dries out, a process that takes anywhere from one to four weeks. For all intents and purposes, the umbilical stump is a scab and should be treated delicately to avoid infection. That said, it isn’t really all that difficult to care for - keep it clean and dry and don’t pull it off prematurely as it will expose the wound. Follow those general guidelines and you’re golden.
Because we want it to dry out and fall off as soon as possible, It is generally recommended (HealthyChildren.org for one) to give spongebaths only and not submerge your baby’s torso in water until the umbilical cord falls off on its’ own. Repeatedly soaking the stump won’t cause any damage, but it is counterproductive to the drying and healing process. Now, that all said, if, say, your little one has a “blow out,” or otherwise gets very dirty, giving your baby a full on bath will not prompt a call to the Parent Police. All I suggest is that you try to avoid touching the stump as much as you can and make sure you give it plenty of air after the bath.
So how do you give a spongebath? Step number one for spongebath or any other bath activity involving a small child is to always ALWAYS collect everything you’ll need. You don’t want to realize when it’s time to dry off your little one that your adorable little owl hooded towel is in the other room. That may or may not have happened to me.
For the spongebath stage, I recommend you get together:
A towel (the hooded ones are really great for keeping your baby warm)
Another towel, a blanket or even a changing pad to put your baby one after they are bundled up in said towel. Most spongebaths happen on a bathroom or kitchen counter, so you will want to have plenty of padding on those hard surfaces.
A sink or shallow plastic basin to hold the water. Many hospitals give you a plastic bin to take home for just this purpose along with other baby bathing tools - baby bodywash, a comb, etc. If you didn’t get one, a tupperware container works just as well
A washcloth, or you know, something even more effective, like...I don’t know...LatherMitts...
Two clean diapers (just in case...you don't want to ever be without a diaper)
Two change of clothes - again, just in case
Diaper rash cream if needed
Baby powder, which is optional and based on personal preference
Lotion, which is also option and based on preference
In case you didn’t know - babies generally HATE being cold, so I always undressed my daughter down to her diaper and kept her wrapped up the parts of her not being cleaned in her towel to keep her warm, leaving areas covered by her diaper until the very end. But, Sarah, why? Well, I discovered leaving her naked wrapped up in her towel while cleaning the rest of her meant the potential for some big messes to clean up during or directly after getting her clean. And if you have boys, it’s even more essential that you “mind the hose.” Learn from my mistakes, friends…
Fill your basin with warm water and mix in a small amount the baby wash if you want - a little goes a long way. Some people prefer to use water only, but in my experience, my daughter’s skin got very dry with just water, so I used a moisturizing baby wash, but feel free to experiment to determine what is best for your little one.
Using a washcloth (or Lathermitts, cough, cough), dip the material in the warm, soapy water and gently rub your baby’s skin one area at a time, tucking in those arms and legs after you get them nice and clean. I always started with the face, behind ears, under the chin, behind the neck, and then worked down from there to avoid...let’s just say contamination.
The cotton balls can be used to wipe eyelids, clean inside ears and around the umbilical stump - I would suggest these areas use water only if you are using a baby wash for spongebaths. Leave some cotton balls off to the side to help dry around ears and the umbilical stump as well. At the very end, unwrap your little one, remove his or her diaper, clean between all the crevices, give their diaper areas a quick dry to avoid diaper rash, apply any creams or powders as desired, and quickly put on a clean diaper. Generally speaking, if you can find the right frequency for giving your baby a bath that works for his or her skin type, lotions, creams and powders won’t be necessary, but I personally found that in winter, my daughter needed a little bit of moisturizer in the cold weather months on her legs.
And the safety of your baby is key during spongebaths or any type of bath - please always keep one hand on your little one and never leave them unattended on a counter or in a bathtub after they graduate to the real deal. Accidents happen in a split second. And on the topic of safety, while I do not recommend them, if you insist on using cotton swabs to clean ears, please do not insert the cotton swab inside the ear canal. There is a real risk of injury to a child’s ear if you push the swab too far in, and your baby could very quickly turn his or her head with the same end result.
Regular infant bathtime uses the same tools in the toolkit we just discussed, but baby is now submersed in water inside a tub or sink. There are several styles of baby bathtubs out there, some that are designed to go inside a full-sized tub, some that are intended to be placed on a countertop (great for c-section moms, btw, as bending over is no easy task for many weeks after giving birth) and some that fit over a kitchen sink. Many parents, especially when the child is strong enough to sit unassisted, will put their kiddos straight in a kitchen or bathroom sink or even put them inside a laundry basket inside the full-sized tub. Long story short - there are lots of options and I encourage you to try out different configurations to find out what works best for you and your family.
Expert tip: If your infant is not a fan of bath night initially, like mine was, swaddling your little one in a light receiving blanket or baby towel before putting them in the warm water can help them feel more secure.
From birth until your child hits puberty, the American Academy of Dermatology actually suggests 2 to 3 baths per week. Feel free to give what my granny calls “bird baths” with wipes or washcloths in between baths if your baby gets particularly messy. There’s one caveat to this recommended frequency: kids should wash up each time they play in a pool or other body of water, including their hair. Also, as babies’ hair starts to grow in, do keep in mind a child’s hair type when deciding how often to wash it. Dry, coarse hair does not need to be washed as often as thinner, more oily hair textures. The same goes for skin types - babies with dry skin or skin conditions like eczema typically need less frequent, shorter baths than those with more oily skin.
And speaking of puberty, there is a very common condition called baby acne that many babies go through that I wanted to call out very quickly here. It’s pretty much the same a teen acne in terms of appearance, but the root cause is still a mystery to pediatricians. Some expert believe it has to do with hormone changes, but they all agree that baby acne should NOT be treated the same way as teen acne. There is no baby Clearasil out there and no special treatment is needed. It clears up all on its’ own.
Similarly, there is another condition in newborns called Milia, aka Milk Spots, which unlike baby acne are small, white bumps that appear usually around a baby’s nose, chin and cheeks within a few days after being born (development can be delayed for preemies). In essence, they are like whiteheads: dead skin becomes trapped in tiny pockets near the surface of your baby's skin. When the surface of the bumps wear away, the dead skin is sloughed off and the bumps disappear.
Overwashing, even just sitting in a water only bath, can dry out skin, cause irritation, and is even thought to be a contributor to cradle cap, which can look like dandruff or it can be a yellowish, scaly rash on your baby’s scalp, so be sure to monitor your child’s skin and adjust the temperature of the water (warmer water dries out skin more), the duration of the bath, and the frequency of bathtimes to find the right balance.
Before I wrap up, I thought I would leave you with some clever ideas to keep in your back pocket for when your little babies grow into little toddlers. There will come a day when your sweet, precious child decides he or she suddenly HATES bathtime. Even kids who you couldn’t get out of the tub and you had to make up some crazy story about raisin fingers to get them to come out will do a complete 180 on their feelings about bath night. This is where you as a parent need to get creative - here are some fun ways to help your child come to love baths again:
Try turning off the lights and dropping in glowsticks in the tub.
Purchase bath drops that tint the water - many brands come in different primary colors, so you can incorporate an art lesson and experiment with color mixing.
Bath crayons are a hit with kids of many different ages - they can write on the walls and it washes off with water and a little elbow grease
Bath blocks are great for those little builders - they come with a floating table and kids can build right on top of it with the special water-safe blocks
Magic capsules are great to keep kids in the tub that don’t want to stay in long enough to get clean. Each capsule holds a sponge animal inside (which one you get is a surprise and part of the fun) which will come out after the capsule dissolves in the water, then the sponge can be part of the bathtime activities as well.
Balloons - who doesn’t love balloons? Blow a few up and throw them right in. Kids can try to push them underwater, they can play keep up with you or a sibling, you can fill them with water and they can throw water balloons at the wall. Lots of options.
Reading a favorite book, especially a water-safe bath book, can keep kids who want to just “get out” until bathtime is over
“Will it float” experiments are a great way for parents to play with their children. Grab a few random items and make guesses on whether the item will float or sink before dropping it into the water and seeing if your hypothesis was correct.
And with that, I think those of you that have never given a baby a bath before are officially prepared for when that day comes. And for those of you that are veterans, I hope I was able to give you some good ideas to make it even easier and more enjoyable for everyone involved the next time it is bath night at your house.
Sarah Stapp is the creator of LatherMitts and mommy to a sassy 6 year old girl. She's originally from Houston, Texas, and has lived in Chicago for over a decade but refuses to adjust to the cold. After 6 years in the startup space after 6 in management, Sarah is trying out the titles of inventor and entrepreneur. Sarah loves hot yoga, trying new vegan recipes, GoT and anything relating to eco-innovation; if you want to hear more musing from Sarah, follow her on Twitter @sarah_stapp, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.