How Do I Give My Premature Baby a Bath?

Newborn after first bath

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Giving your baby a bath is one of the joys of parenting. When your baby is born early, many parenting tasks must be shared with NICU staff. Helping with bath time in the NICU is a great way to bond with your baby and can help prepare you to take your baby home. If you didn't get many chances to give your baby a bath in the NICU, don't worry! You'll learn quickly and will soon feel like a professional.

Should I Give My Baby a Sponge Bath or a Tub Bath?

There are a few things to consider as you're deciding whether to give your baby a sponge bath or a tub bath. First, look at the umbilical cord. Is it still attached? Is there any oozing or bleeding from the site? If yes, then give a sponge bath. Next, is your baby circumcised? If the circumcision is still healing, then give a sponge bath.

If your baby's cord and circumcision are healed nicely, then the choice is yours. Babies are slippery when wet, so some parents prefer to give sponge baths until they feel more confident. However, most babies seem to prefer a tub bath, and they will cry less and enjoy bath time more in a tub.

How Often You Should Give a Baby a Bath

Babies, especially preemies, have sensitive skin that gets dry very quickly. If your baby's skin is dry, bathe them every two to four days.

Babies who sweat a lot or spit up frequently will need to be bathed more frequently, while babies who stay mostly clean can go longer between baths.

Equipment for Bathtime

To give your premature baby a bath, you will need:

  • Clean clothes, a hat, and a diaper
  • A towel
  • Two washcloths
  • Baby soap, shampoo
  • A baby bathtub or bowl of water
  • For sponge baths, an extra towel or absorbent pad

Steps to Bathing a Baby

The first step to bathing your baby is to gather all of your supplies. You can't walk away once you put your baby in the bathtub, so make sure you have everything you need. Preemies get cold easily, so give your baby a bath in a warm room.

Fill the bathtub or bowl with lukewarm water (test it with your wrist or elbow). Lay down a towel or absorbent pad if you're going to give your baby a sponge bath. If you're giving a tub bath, put your baby in the bathtub, supporting their neck and shoulders.

Wash your baby in the following order:

  1. Wash the face: Use a washcloth to wash from the inner corner of the eye to the outer corner, then use a different part of the washcloth to wash the other eye. Wash the rest of the face. Do not use soap on the face.
  2. Wash the neck and ears: Milk and dirt tend to get trapped in a baby's neck folds and behind the ears, so use soap and wash these parts next.
  3. Wash the body: Wash your baby's arms, hands, trunk, back, and legs.
  4. Wash the bottom: Wash your baby's bottom next, then set that washcloth aside. If you are giving a sponge bath, wrap or cover your baby with a dry towel before you wash their hair.
  5. Wash the hair: Because heat escapes so quickly from a baby's head, wash your baby's hair last. Use a head-to-toe baby wash or a shampoo designed for babies.
  6. Dry and dress your baby: After bath time, dry your baby thoroughly and dress them in clean, dry clothes. Put a hat on your baby to minimize heat loss.

Congratulations! Bath time is finished. Snuggle your baby and offer a feeding, then lay them down to sleep. Babies are often sleepy after a bath and may eat less or sleep better after a bath than at other times.

By Cheryl Bird, RN, BSN
Cheryl Bird, RN, BSN, is a registered nurse in a tertiary level neonatal intensive care unit at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia.