Make Bathtime Less Stressful with a Swaddle Bath

Swaddle bathing is bathing your baby while swaddled in a blanket and immersed into water except for your baby’s head and neck.

The History of Swaddle Bathing

When babies are stressed, scared, or upset they give us certain cues about how unhappy they are. These clues include arching their back, crying, stretching out their arms and legs, extending their fingers, and blinking their eyes. This stress can be harmful for the sickest of babies, those born prematurely or with other conditions requiring them to be in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). We know that when babies are stressed, such as during medical procedures or baths, their blood sugar, breathing rates, and body temperature all become unstable.

Researchers, doctors and nurses wanted to find ways to make bath time safer and less stressful for babies in the NICU. These bath-time innovators  pioneered the concept of swaddle bathing. Today many NICUs and nurseries in hospitals around the country and world use swaddle baths as the standard of care because it is so beneficial for premature and sick infants.

What Are the Benefits of Swaddle Bathing?

Many NICUs and hospital nurseries use swaddle baths because it makes bath time so much less stressful for both babies and parents. Some of the observed benefits of swaddle baths in NICUs are that:

  • Babies cry less
  • Babies can better conserve energy
  • Blood sugar levels stay more stable
  • Babies stay warner
  • Decreased number of startle reflexes
  • Faster bathing times
  • Babies (and parents) look away less during bathing, so better bonding
  • More parents of NICU babies participated in swaddle baths compared to parent participation in routine sponge baths according to research findings.
  • Babies only have to be bathed every four days with swaddle baths (normally babies are bathed daily in the NICU to reduce the risk of infection).

Steps For a Safe Swaddle Bath

You can also help make bathtime cuddly and soothing for your baby by adopting the same swaddle bathing techniques used in NICUs if you follow these steps:

  1. Gather all your supplies near your bath area ahead of time:
  • Baby bathtub. Some post-C-section moms recommend bathing in the sink for the first few weeks to avoid the pain of having to bend over.
  • Swaddle blanket
  • Cup for pouring rinsing water
  • Soap or shampoo
  • Wash cloth (1-2)
  • Skin lotion
  • Diaper cream
  • Infant hair brush or comb
  • Clean Diaper
  • Change of clothes
  1. Fill your bathtub or sink with warm, not hot water and test with the inside of your arm. Fill the basin or sink with at least 2 inches of water or enough to cover up to their shoulders. This will help keep Baby warm and calm.
  2. Take off your baby’s clothing. Following swaddling blanket folding technique, first fold over the bottom to tuck in their feet.
  3. Slowly ease them into the water. Talk or sing to your baby in a calm and reassuring voice to help soothe them.
  4. Support your baby at all times, always keeping one hand on them.
  5. Wash your baby’s face first, with water only. Wipe each eyelid, from the inside to the outside corner, using a different part of the washcloth for each eye to avoid an eye infection.
  6. Next, unwrap one arm at a time for cleaning, leaving the rest swaddled to help conserve heat and comfort Baby.
  7. After washing both arms, wash your baby’s chest.
  8. Continue the swaddle bath process with the legs, unwrapping, washing, and re-covering each leg.
  9. Pull down and unfold  the  bottom section of swaddle wrap, while keeping arms and legs covered, to wash Baby’s belly.
  10. With a separate washcloth, gently wash between your baby’s legs and genitals, being careful to wash in creases and folds. Wash their bottom and genitals last. If your son hasn’t been circumcised, don’t try to push back the foreskin. Put this washcloth off to the side when finished.
  11. To keep your baby warm, you can pour warm water over his or her body throughout the bath.
  12. Sit Baby up, supporting them with your hands and squirt soapy water directly onto the baby’s back, using the swaddle as the washcloth to wash your baby’s back. Use the pouring cup to rinse away any excess soap.
  13. Not all babies have hair or need to have their hair washed with every bath. If you are washing your baby’s head, make sure to save this for the last part of the bath. This helps to keep Baby warm and if they happen to poop in the bath, requiring a bath water change, your baby won’t get chilled with a wet head. Pour water slowly over your baby’s head with the pouring cup, add a little squirt of shampoo or soap, and rub to get a lather.  Carefully cup your hand above your baby’s eyebrows when rinsing so no soap gets in their eyes.
  14. Unwrap the wet swaddle bath blanket, lift them carefully out of the tub, and towel them off as quickly as possible so that they don’t become chilled.

Quick Tips for A Low-Stress Infant Swaddle Bath

  • Until your baby’s umbilical cord falls off (usually after 1-2 weeks), you should give your baby sponge baths. Avoid submerging their umbilical area underwater. To prevent infection before it has fully healed.
  • Newborns only need to be bathed once a week, up until 3 months old. From 3-6 months of age, you can bath your baby 2-3 times a week.
  • NEVER leave your baby alone in the tub.
  • Polyester fleece swaddle blankets work better than cotton blankets for swaddle baths because they absorb less water. This means that they don’t become as heavy and do a better job of keeping your little one toasty warm for the whole bath.
  • Swaddle bath advocates recommend a larger-sized swaddle blanket, so that you can use the corners and extra fabric to help you clean and wash.
  • Bathwater should be between 99.9 and 103.9 degrees Fahrenheit, or comfortably warm — not hot. The water should feel comfortable to the inside of your arm.
  • Keep bathtime quick- the bath should only last 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Support your baby throughout the bath.
  • Wait at least 24 hours after circumcision to give your baby boy an immersion bath.

It’s Tubby Time, Bring Your Swaddle Blanket

Regardless of whether or not your baby was in the NICU or born prematurely, they will still love a comforting swaddle bath. Help your baby relax and enjoy a swaddle bath time ritual with less stress and crying for both you and your baby!

Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a certified nurse-midwife with a Master's Degree in Maternal and Child Health from Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Her passions are health literacy and women's reproductive health. A recent two-year sabbatical with her family in Spain was the impetus for becoming a freelance women's health writer. An exercise nut, she is happiest outdoors and on adventures abroad.

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