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Born Too Early / Premature Baby Care / Everyday Baby Care /
Bathing Your Preemie Baby
By Candace Campbell, RN, MSNc
Chances are your nurse helped you bathe your preemie baby in the hospital but now that you’re home you’re struggling to remember every step. Relax; follow these six easy steps to a stress-free and relaxing bath both you and your baby will love each time.

Be prepared

Just as you would gather supplies before making your favorite recipe, get your bath assembled in a warm environment. Most bathrooms are warmer than drafty kitchens, unless you mean to intentionally cool the baby. Turn off the phone and ask dad for an extra pair of hands to help . . . just in case.

Place the baby bathtub on a firm surface, and set your bath articles away from baby’s reach. Bath items you will want include a soft wash cloth, cotton balls, rinse water, etc.

Prepare the after-bath area for drying by padding with extra clean towels. To warm your towels before the bath, toss them into the dryer on the “delicate” cycle for 5 minutes or so. Never use a microwave or convection oven to warm towels or clothes.)

Grab an extra diaper, too, since bathing often stimulates babies to relax and let it rip!
Test the water

Your baby’s bath should be warmer than lukewarm, so she doesn’t get chilled. Her body temperature is 98.6 F, so aim for bath water that’s between 99ºF to 100ºF. Test the water with your elbow, rather than your hand, as our hands are used to warmer temperatures. Remember to fill a non-glass container, like a large plastic pitcher, with warm rinse water before you begin.

Putting her in the water

If your baby’s umbilical cord has healed, you will dunk her whole body, except her head!, as opposed to a swipe n’ wipe. To place her in the tub, spread your fingers and grasp the base of her skull and her shoulders with one hand. Use your other hand to support her lower body. Gently lower her into the water. Concentrate on supporting the upper body and allow the lower torso to float freely. If she doesn’t relax into the bath, she may be telling you the water is too hot or cold, that you are holding her at the wrong angle, or that she doesn’t feel well.

Clean from top to bottom

Beginning with the eyes, wipe from the inner to the outer eye corners with cotton balls or a corner of a clean wash cloth soaked and wringed of plain water. Then change cotton balls, or rotate to another corner of the cloth. Avoid cross-contamination of any bacteria housed in one eye to the other as it’s easily transferred. With this in mind, also avoid back and forth swipes on the same eye.

Continue to wash the rest of her body with mild baby soap. (Note: for boys with fresh circumcisions, do a sponge bath until your baby’s doctor or healthcare provider confirms it’s
completely healed.)

Pay extra attention to the neck folds and creases in her arms and legs. Then, rinse using the plastic pitcher. It will be helpful to have an extra pair of hands!
How dry I am

When the bat is finished, lift your baby from the tub keeping her head and spine in alignment, and place her on her back on those nice warm towels. Cover her body with a towel and dry quickly, blotting, into the nooks and crannies of the neck, arms, and legs.

You can use a cotton swab to dry behind the ear or in the curlicues of the outer ear, but avoid entering the ear canal except to soak up what moisture is visible. (A cloth wrapped around your finger may do just as well.)

Your baby’s skin, her largest organ, is a semi-permeable membrane and it clogs easily. Her preemie skin is delicate because she has fewer layers beneath the surface and it dries easily. Know that if you use lotions, creams, or powders, you will need to bathe her more often. Lotion is not needed for most babies, but if you do so chose, use it sparingly, and avoid her face and genitalia.

When to shampoo

Applying water to the head causes an immediate cooling effect. If your baby is feverish or the weather outside is hot, you may cool your baby with water to her head first. In most cases, plan to shampoo last.

The process of applying soap and doing an actual shampooing is not a daily need for baby (or most adults, for that matter). Once or twice a week should be sufficient.

Wrap her in a warm, dry towel and place her in the football hold, tucking her legs under your arm. Angle her head down slightly, to avoid getting water down her neck. Hold her over the sink and use your hand or a plastic pitcher to wet her hair.

Next, add a small amount (about a dime-size) of baby shampoo to the back of her scalp. Proceed to stimulate the sebaceous glands beneath the scalp with your finger pads (or by using a soft baby brush), in a circular motion, until all the hair has been covered. This will help keep oil from accumulating in her pores.

A condition known as sebaceous dermatitis or “cradle cap” may appear at first as scaly skin or dandruff. You may apply a small amount of natural oil and work into the scalp with a gentle massage, to loosen these flakes a few minutes prior bathing. Be sure to rinse thoroughly.

Timing is everything

Your baby will likely be fatigued and sleep longer after her bath. Plan to bathe her about 30 minutes before her next feeding to avoid stomach upset. Preemie babies in particular need to digest while unstressed.

If you feel overwhelmed at the prospect of bathing your preemie, you are not alone. Trust that you have grown to know your child and that you have the skills to parent her well. With practice, soon you’ll be recalling these 6 simple steps with ease, and baby bath time will be a fun and relaxing time for all!

About the Author: Candace Campbell, RN, MSNc, has practiced as a NICU nurse, and educator for 20 years. Her documentary film, Micropremature Babies: How Low Can you Go? plus her delightful children’s books, My Mom Is A Nurse, and Good Things Come In Small Packages (I Was A Preemie), are available on or at: A percentage of the profits of each sale goes to the March of Dimes.

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