Baby Maintenance: Baths, Nails, and Hair

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on September 17, 2023
8 min read

Unfortunately for new parents, babies don't come with instruction manuals. So when it comes to new parenting tasks, such as baths and nail trimming, some parents feel nervous or confused.

If you're unsure about these baby grooming basics, here's a handy guide to help you make hygiene as easy as loving your baby.

Baby sponge bath

Until your baby's umbilical cord falls off, which usually happens after the first week, don't give them any baths. Instead, give your baby a sponge wash. Circumcised boys should not be bathed until the penis has totally healed. Here's how:

Pick a warm room with a flat surface, such as a bathroom, a kitchen counter, a changing table, or a bed. Cover the surface with a thick towel. Make sure the room temperature is at least 75 F.

Assemble all the baby bath products you will need:

  • Baby bath sponge or clean washcloth (double-rinsed)
  • Clean blanket or bath towel (a hooded one is nice)
  • Clean diaper
  • Clean clothes
  • Vaseline and gauze (if you have a circumcised boy)
  • Warm water (not hot)

The basics of bathing a baby:

  • First, undress your baby and cradle their head with one hand. Leave their diaper on, as you'll wash that area last. Wrap your baby in a towel, exposing only the areas that you're washing.
  • Using a baby bath sponge or washcloth, cleanse one area at a time. Start behind the ears, then move to your baby's neck, elbows, knees, and then between their fingers and toes. Pay attention to the creases under their arms, behind the ears, and around their neck.
  • The hair comes toward the end of bath time so your baby doesn't get cold. While newborns don't have much hair, you can sponge the few wisps that are there. To avoid getting their eyes wet, tip their head back just a little. There's no need for shampoo; just use water.
  • Now it's time to remove the diaper and sponge your baby's belly, bottom, and genitals.
  • Wash little girls from front to back. If there's a little vaginal discharge, don't worry—and don't try to wipe it all away. If a little boy is uncircumcised, leave the foreskin alone. If circumcised, don't wash the head of the penis until it's healed.
  • Gently pat your baby dry; rubbing the skin can cause irritation.

Bath time is over, and your fresh little baby is ready for a clean diaper and clothes!

Avoid adult products when washing your baby. 

Baby tub baths

Once your baby's umbilical cord stump has fallen off, you can start giving them baths. Your baby doesn't need a bath every daytwo to three times a week should be fine.

Whether you bathe your baby in a baby bath, sink, or bathtub is up to you. However, given that babies are slippery when wet, some parents find it more comfortable to give them a bath in a smaller space, such as a baby bath or a sink.

The most important thing to remember about baths is to never leave your baby unattended. Babies can slide down and quickly become submerged in even a few inches of water. Using a baby bath seat is no assurance that your baby will be safe in the bathtub. Many seats can easily tip over. If you need to leave the room, wrap your baby in a towel and take them with you.

Not all babies like the transition to tub baths, so if your baby gets fussy, go back to sponge baths for a week or so, then try again. Bathing a baby is a process—an adjustment for both the baby and the parent.

To prepare:

  • Find a baby bathtub made of thick plastic that is the right size for your baby. An insert for young babies is ideal. It will help keep your baby's head out of the water. A slip-resistant backing on the tub will keep it from moving during bath time. Avoid inflatable tubs, or baby bathtubs with rough edges or foam cushions, as your baby could accidentally swallow a piece that breaks off. 
  • Don't try to use bath seats or bath rings. These are for older babies who can sit up on their own, not for newborns.
  • Put the washcloth, soap, and shampoo—everything you'll need for the bath—close by. That way, you don't have to leave the room once your baby is in the tub. Also, lay out a diaper and clothes where you can easily reach them after the bath.

Here are some tips for giving your baby a tub bath:

  1. Fill the tub with 2 to 3 inches of water. The bath should be warm but not hot. To ensure the water is at the right temperature, test it first with your elbow.
  2. Wash your baby's face gently with a wet washcloth. Use a wet cotton ball or washcloth (no soap) to clean your baby's eyes and face. Wipe from the inside of each eye to the outside. Make sure you get any dried secretions out of the nose and eyes.
  3. Soap the washcloth (use a gentle, no-tears baby soap or wash) and clean your baby's body from top to bottom and front to back. Make sure you clean inside all of the little folds. Wash the diaper area last.
  4. Fill a cup with water to wet your baby's hair. Put a small amount of baby shampoo on their head. Rub in a gentle circular motion. Keep your baby's head tilted back so the shampoo doesn't run into their eyes.
  5. Fill the cup again with clean water to rinse your baby's hair and body.
  6. When lifting your baby out of the bath, support their bottom with one hand and their head and neck with the other. Make sure you have a firm hold so your baby doesn't slide away.
  7. You don't need to use lotion, but you can apply a small amount after the bath if your baby’s skin is especially dry. If your baby's skin continues to be very dry, you may be giving them baths too often.
  8. After the bath, wrap your baby in a towel and gently pat them dry.

Baby bath temperatures

When you fill the tub to bathe your baby, make sure your water heater is set to around 100 F (38 C). Be sure that the water temperature stays below 120 F (49 C) so that you don't accidentally scald your baby. Your baby can easily chill when they come out of the tub, so keep the room temperature warm.

Baby bath toys 

Because they're in and out of water, bath toys can easily get moldy. Mold grows in dark, wet, and warm places. So while you could spot mold on the outside of your baby's bath toys, often it grows best inside hollow ones where water can get inside.

You can wipe away a little mold on the outside of a toy, but if your baby's bath toys smell bad or have more than a little mold, it's best to just throw the toy away. Most of the molds do not pose a significant health risk to your baby, but it's best to avoid it entirely.

If you have a new baby and you've had old bath toys in storage for a while, it might be a good idea to replace them in case they've gotten moldy since you last used them.

Keeping toys as dry as possible will help keep them mold-free. After bath time, dry any tub toys and be sure to clean them regularly with warm soapy water. Buy solid or hole-free toys to prevent water from getting inside them, where there's a greater chance for mold to grow.

Infants younger than 6 months typically don't need bath toys. Once they're a little older and can more easily hold their head up, floating toys, waterproof books, and containers can help keep your baby happily distracted during bath time.

It's common for babies to develop flaky, red patches of skin on their scalp, a condition called cradle cap. It's not a big concern and is easy to treat. Here's how:

  1. Before a bath, massage a little bit of petroleum jelly or baby oil into your baby's scalp to loosen the dry skin.
  2. Gently rub the oil into your baby's scalp with a soft brush or washcloth to release the flakes.
  3. Wash your baby's hair with a gentle baby shampoo.

Cradle cap should get better on its own. If it sticks around or spreads to your baby's face, neck, or other parts of the body, see your doctor. You may need a stronger prescription shampoo for your baby's hair and a cortisone cream for your baby's body.

Because your baby's fingernails grow very quickly and babies can easily scratch themselves, file or cut their nails about twice a week. As your baby's toenails don't grow as quickly, you can probably get away with cutting them a couple of times a month. Just watch out for any jagged edges that you may need to trim.

Whether you opt for baby scissors, baby nail clippers, or a nail file is up to you. Considering the tiny size of baby's nails, decide which one you're most comfortable using. Never bite off your baby's nailsyou could give them an infection.

Baby nail clippers

Here are some tips to make cutting your baby's nails easier:

  • Use nail clippers sized for babies, not for adults. 
  • Cut nails after a bath, when they're softer. Sometimes it helps to trim a baby's nails when the baby is asleep and relaxed. If you use scissors or a nail clipper, press the skin under the nail down so you can get to the nail more easily. It may help to have your partner hold the baby's hand steady the first few times so you can concentrate on cutting.
  • Trim their fingernails following the natural curve of the nail. Cut toenails straight across.
  • If you accidentally nip your baby's skin with the scissors, apply gentle pressure with a tissue or piece of gauze. Use a tiny bit of antibacterial ointment on the cut. Don't put on a bandage because your baby could choke on it.

Baby nail file

Filing your baby's nails generally runs less of a risk that you'll cut their skin. Use an emery board to shorten your baby's nails or to smooth any jagged edges after clipping them.