When you’re a little kid, it’s hard to beat the fun of bath time. After all, when you’ve got splish splashing bubbles and a yellow rubber ducky, it’s like having a mini-water park in your own home.
But for parents tasked with supervising and scrubbing a child, the question often arises, “How often do we really need to have this much ‘fun’?”
Even if you don’t see dirt on a child, taking baths at regular intervals is important for reasons aside from feeling fresh.
“While exposure to germs strengthens our immune systems over time, germs can accumulate on skin and put kids at risk for infection,” said Natalie Huynh, DO, an OSF HealthCare resident physician. “Throughout the day, kids are active and prone to getting little scrapes and cuts. So, the longer they go without bathing puts them at some risk for skin infection. And obviously, as we continue through the pandemic, good hygiene practices help prevent potential exposure to COVID-19 as kids are prone to touching their face, eyes and nose.”
Kids’ mental health also benefits from bathing.
“Mental health is important, and having a set routine gives kids a sense of control over the day and helps them anticipate what’s coming next,” Dr. Huynh added. “Having an after-dinner bath routine helps them unwind and creates a transition between the busy part of the day and when it’s time to settle down and start to get ready for bed.”
Bath frequency depends on the age of the child. For newborns, two or three times per week is usually sufficient. Doing it more than this can dry out a baby’s fragile skin. As long as you’re cleaning them well during diaper changes and washing their face with a damp cloth as necessary, your little bundle of joy will be just fine between baths. But remember: It’s important to avoid immersive baths with newborns until after the umbilical cord has fallen off. Until then, wash them with a sponge or damp cloth.
For young children, unless they’re visibly dirty or have been outside sweating, two to three times per week is generally enough for them as well. Children ages 6 to 11 should bathe a minimum of two to three times per week. And daily bathing is always a good hygiene choice for tweens and teens, as their skin produces more oil and is prone to acne and odor.
But getting back to that splish splashing fun, how long should bath time last for little kids?
“About 10 minutes is enough,” Dr. Huynh said. “That’s enough time to get clean and have some fun without drying out the skin and starting to get cold.”
Choosing soap and shampoo
With so many options on the store shelves, deciding on the right soap and shampoo for your child may not seem like an easy choice.
“A mild soap or cleanser that’s either unscented or without much scent is usually a good choice,” said Mary Stapel, MD, an OSF HealthCare pediatrician. “As kids get older and sometimes struggle with acne, an anti-bacterial soap may be beneficial in consultation with their dermatologist. But generally speaking, avoiding cleansers with ingredients like parabens and sulfates will prevent the skin from drying out and having other irritations. Also, some ‘natural’ soaps are gentler and don’t strip away your skin’s natural oils and protective barrier.
“But research is showing that the soap or cleanser itself may not be the most important part of bathing. The friction provided by the water and gentle scrubbing tends to be the most effective way to remove dirt, grime, excess oils and bacteria.”
Regarding shampoos, parents should choose unscented options with a neutral PH that won’t damage the hair or irritate the scalp and eyes.
Still have questions?
“For example, don’t just buy a baby shampoo because it’s marketed as ‘no-tears,’” Dr. Stapel said. “Some of them are scented with non-neutral PH, so be sure to read the label.”
Don’t forget to moisturize!
After rinsing the child and drying them off, applying a moisturizer is important for locking moisture within the skin.
“Petroleum jelly-based and water-based emollients and lotions are both good choices for maintaining the skin’s moisture level,” Dr. Stapel said. “But during the winter months when the air is drier, using moisturizers with petroleum jelly is more effective. Also, applying a moisturizer right after a bath or shower has the added benefit of locking in moisture the skin absorbed while bathing.”