Bathing seems pretty straight forward, but like all topics, nothing is as straight-forward with a baby as you want it to be!
To begin with, don’t overbathe a baby. Probably because our British ancestors deified a bath as the perfect medicine for everything, Americans sometimes have this notion that they need to bathe their babies every day. Every other day is fine, or even once or twice a week while they’re really little. When they’re older, they’ll get dirtier more quickly because they’re crawling around a lot or eating messy. Then you can step up the bath number. But a little baby acquires very little dirt and the skin system is working to get its oil balance right, so relax about the bathing.
When your baby is little (before sitting up well), use an infant tub. I know there are moms who don’t, but they are usually more experienced with bathing a slippery little sausage than the average mom! Unless you are a neonatal nurse, find a good infant tub that lets them recline with water covering at least most of their body below the chest. Otherwise the baby will be too cold, and the main thing that makes little babies cry about baths isn’t being wet, it’s being cold. If you can get a naked and wet baby warm enough, they don’t mind bit. (Remember they used to be warm, wet, and naked all the time in there!) I don’t recommend space heaters in the bathroom because they are the world’s biggest safety hazard, but do realize that the warmer your baby is when they’re bathing, the more like those Gerber shampoo commercials the experience will be.
Make sure the infant tub has some kind of safety mechanism that allows the baby to recline there without slipping. Most infant tubs lack this, but it is almost impossible to bathe a slippery sausage without needing to take your hand away for some reason… even for just a second! I have gone through four little babies without a good tub and regretted every bath I ever gave them because I didn’t upgrade my tub. (Cheapskate). You want to keep one hand on the baby the whole time you’re bathing if at all possible, but if you have to change kneeling positions or grab the washcloth, you will be so much happier if you have a safety mechanism. DON’T leave the room for towels or PJs; it’s just too dangerous even for a second. Better to have a cold crying baby than a tragedy.
Make sure the water isn’t too hot or cold. The younger the baby, the more sensitive their sensory system is. The best way to test hot water is to stick a non-wet elbow down below the water in the tub and see how it feels. Your arm is more sensitive than your hand, and a non-wet limb registers the initial shock more accurately than a wet one. The key is, if you can get your little baby into the bath without screaming, they are more likely to enjoy the bath. If they start off screaming, they’ll probably continue until it’s over. And most bathrooms really echo! You can get out of there thinking you’ve been in the Twilight Zone! The other thing that commonly makes babies scream is dropping them that last half-inch into the tub, so try to let down slowly, all the way.
I have said elsewhere that the idea of giving your baby a bath before a nap is ridiculous. Most little babies are totally woken up by their bath and are absolutely irate about getting dressed/undressed. Save it for wake up time.
If your baby cries while getting them undressed, and they probably will, wrap them in a towel and try to get them to stop before putting them into the bath. Like I said, if you can get them to enter not crying, they’ll probably be happy about the whole thing. This means, make the bath first and undress last or you’ll have to put your undressed baby down somewhere and make them cry while you make the bath. You don’t want that.
Don’t worry about special soaps or shampoos unless you have reason to believe your baby is especially sensitive (i.e. they have eczema, allergies, or diaper rash). We have always used standard body wash in our baby’s tubs, even when they were little. I would get one bottle of Johnson & Johnsons for their newborn days and then when that ran out, I’d use whatever everyone else was using: Bath and Body Works, Suave, Dove, Crabtree & Evelyn, Eckerd’s… You’ll find a million and one ads trying to convince you that the blessed mom will get Aveeno or whatever, but I think it is good to get little one’s skin used to the soaps your household commonly uses. Use common sense and if something seems like it might be too strong, then don’t use it. But don’t create a culture of fear around your baby. They took a beating for nine months inside with all the things you put in your body that you ideally shouldn’t have, and they won’t shrivel up if you use Tide instead of Dreft, or VO5 instead of Mustela.
For a little baby, make the bath careful and functional. Sing a nice song even if the baby is screaming—all my kids liked ABCs the best— and put some bubbles and a ducky in there. But otherwise, just wash them with a soft cloth or sponge and get them out. Pay special attention to the private parts since those are the most dirty and most sensitive areas, but don’t overexamine. Just swish them a lot and rub your finger through all those sweet little creases that the legs get as they get chubbier. The creases harbor the bad stuff. Get the neck folds too. Give their hair and face a quick once over, but squeeze the cloth or sponge first so they don’t get excess water in their face, and don’t scrub at any pimples. You can work on cradle cap if you want, but don’t scrub at the soft spot. I usually did this at a different time altogether with my babies so they’d like baths.
A baby bath doesn’t last long, even though you did all that preparation, and when you get them out, lift them carefully because they’re so slippery. Have the towel ready on your lap or the floor if necessary, and wrap them quickly so they don’t get cold. You will probably see their little chins quiver. Swaddle them in the towel and take them to a soft and warm place to get dressed. If I tried to dress them there on the bathroom floor, they just got upset. By the time I took them to a bed somewhere, they were drier and I could pick up the PJs en route if I’d forgotten.
You’re done! Congratulations! Hopefully you don’t have to feed next or you’ll just need another bath 😉