Are you wondering how to go about washing your baby’s locks? Is it possible to make it a positive experience for you both? Many new moms share these thoughts.
Your baby might have been born with a full head of luscious strands, ready for washing — or just one or two strands! You may also wonder what to do with your baby’s wet hair after the bath. We’ll look into all this and more, so hang tight.
When Can I Start Washing Baby’s Hair?
You can wash your baby’s hair immediately after birth. In hospital, a nurse will often give your baby their first bath to clean the skin before dressing them.
Maybe you’re feeling hesitant to wash your baby’s hair after returning home from the hospital. However, with a few tips and tricks, it’s nothing to stress about.
Newborns don’t need a bath every day and it’s actually only necessary to wash their hair around twice a week (1). Even if your baby doesn’t have much hair, it’s still important to gently wash the scalp, to get rid of excess oil.
If you feel that your baby’s hair might need a little cleanse in between, you can simply use a washcloth and water. Wet the cloth and wring it out, then gently wipe your baby’s hair. This should do fine until the next shampoo session.
In the majority of my patients who are infants, I recommend rinsing the scalp during the baby bath. If there are no scalp problems, there is no need to wash with shampoo on a daily basis. For infants who are lucky enough to have a full head of hair at birth, using a tear-free infant shampoo a few times a week is fine.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Cradle Cap — Can Regular Washing Help?
Infantile seborrheic dermatitis, more commonly known as cradle cap, is a dandruff type condition that many babies develop. It’s neither harmful nor contagious, and the look of it may bother you more than your baby.
You might notice yellow, white, red, or brown scales or flakes in your baby’s scalp. These can be large and visible, or tiny patches hanging on to the scalp.
In severe cases, the cradle cap could spread to your baby’s face or body. In this case, you should contact your child’s pediatrician.
The causes of cradle cap are not exactly known. Some studies suggest it’s caused by the hormones that rush through baby and mommy before birth. The hormones can cause an overproduction of sebum, which is found in the oil glands.
Others say that a yeast called “Malassezia” is to blame. Malassezia naturally grows in the sebum, along with other microbes. Some pediatricians choose to treat cradle cap with an antifungal serum for this reason (2). The AAP has additional advice regarding cradle cap.
Many doctors will actually recommend washing your baby’s hair and scalp more regularly when cradle cap is diagnosed. Keeping the hair and scalp clean could help remove excess oil.
Because infant seborrhea or “cradle cap” is an oily type of rash, I do not recommend the use of oils to treat it. I commonly discuss this issue in practice and often hear of a grandmother or extended relative who has urged the parents to put oil on the scalp. Unfortunately, once the oil is absorbed into the pores of the scalp, the flaking increases.
My suggestion instead is to use “Classic” Head & Shoulders (as opposed to the many other versions available on the market) to wash the scalp every other day for one week. This is easiest to do with the infant on his or her back but inclined up a bit so that the shampoo does not end up in the eyes. Running water should be used from behind the infant’s head to avoid the eyes as well.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Seborrhea can occur on and off throughout the first year of life and is a normal phenomenon. Less often, I see it in toddlers and older children. In infants, this rash can spread past the scalp, progressing to the face, neck and chest, and even down the whole body. Ironically, if the scalp is treated, the body rash resolves in most cases.
When the seborrhea is severe or associated with intense itching, I will occasionally prescribe a low-potency hydrocortisone cream for non-facial lesions. There is also a non-steroid prescription cream that I prescribe, but insurance coverage is sometimes a problem.
Nemour’s Hospital discusses how seborrhea can affect the whole body of an infant.
One of the best ways to remove the scales is by softening them before a bath, using an oil or petroleum jelly. After the bath, gently brush your baby’s hair with a soft brush.
It might be tempting to remove the scales by hand. However, picking at the scales, or removing them before they’re loose, could irritate the skin or cause infection (3).
Benefits of Washing Baby’s Hair
Not only will your baby’s head be clean, but there are also other benefits to washing your little one’s hair regularly.
1. Could Prevent Ringworm
A common infection of the skin is ringworm. In babies and children, it’s likely to appear on the scalp. Ringworm is highly contagious but, fortunately, it has nothing to do with worms: it’s actually a fungus called “tinea.”
The infection causes a ring or oval shape to form, and the area is usually dry, red, and itchy. Your baby’s pediatrician may prescribe an antifungal cream or ointment, or a special shampoo. However, for the infection to completely clear, your baby might need oral treatment as well (4).
One way you may be able to prevent ringworm altogether is by regularly washing your baby’s hair and scalp.
2. May Prevent Dandruff
Although dandruff is very similar to cradle cap, it isn’t quite the same condition. Common causes of dandruff include:
- An excess of oil.
- Dry scalp.
- A fungal infection.
Dandruff is not harmful or contagious, but it can be itchy — especially if the cause is eczema or dryness.
Using a moisturizing shampoo regularly can help to prevent or reduce the effects of dandruff.
However, if your baby has eczema on the scalp, avoid using shampoo. Instead, contact your baby’s pediatrician and follow their advice. They may suggest using an emollient shampoo instead, since these are soothing for the skin.
If the cause is excess oil, try washing your baby’s hair and scalp more often (5).
How to Wash Baby’s Hair
Now that you know some of the benefits of washing your little one’s hair, let’s go through how to do it correctly. Here’s our easy-to-follow guide on how to get it done.
What you need:
- A tub, basin or sink.
- A towel.
- A washcloth.
- A moisturizing, baby-safe shampoo.
- Optional: A moisturizer or oil.
1. Fill the Tub
Fill the tub with around two to four inches of warm water. If you have a thermometer, check that the water is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Don’t have a thermometer handy? Use the inside of your wrist or elbow to test it. The water should feel warm but not hot.
Here are some water safety tips regarding infant bathing.
2. Bathe Baby as Normal
Bathe your baby as you normally would. I like to finish off with the hair, since wet hair can make your baby cold quicker.
When it’s time to wash your baby’s hair, first wet it a little using your hand, a cup, or a washcloth, making sure water doesn’t trickle down the face. Take a small amount of baby shampoo and gently lather it into the hair. You should never rub vigorously.
Use your hand, cup, or washcloth to rinse out the shampoo carefully but thoroughly. An excellent way to do this is by alternating between water and sweeping front to back with your hand.
If you’re worried the suds will get in your baby’s eyes, use the washcloth. Wet it and gently wipe your baby’s hair clean.
3. Get Out, Get Dressed
Once you’re done, lift the baby out of the tub and pat dry with a soft towel right away. Gently rub the hair with the towel. Dress them appropriately and snuggle up for some relaxation time.
When you’re happy, your baby is happy. If you’re feeling nervous, chances are your baby might feel your vibes — so try to stay calm.
Practice makes perfect. Sooner or later you’ll be a whizz at the process, and chances are your child may even look forward to having their hair washed.
Drying Baby’s Hair — Is It Necessary?
Drying your baby’s hair after a bath is based on personal preference. Some parents like to leave it to dry naturally, while others prefer otherwise. If it’s cold out, you may choose to get it done right away.
Babies can lose a lot of body heat through their heads. However, they can also overheat if the head is covered for too long. Investing in a hooded towel is an excellent way to take your little one from the bath to your changing area without them getting the chills.
How to Dry Baby’s Hair
If you want to do a little more than merely letting your baby’s hair dry naturally, here are a couple of methods:
1. Towel Dry
After a bath, make use of a soft towel to stroke your baby’s hair gently and the towel will soak up any remaining water.
2. Use a Soft Brush
If your baby has thin hair, simply stroking it a couple of times after patting it with a towel can remove excess moisture. However, if your baby has more hair, this method could be tedious and not so successful.
For infants with coarse hair, some of my parents brush the hair with baby lotion to reduce the tangles. If there are signs of seborrhea, I discourage this practice as the oiliness can worsen the condition.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
3. Blow Dry
Some parents want to use a hairdryer after a bath, but if you do, be very careful. Hairdryers can become very hot. I’ve burned myself a couple of times — blame an evil cocktail of morning rush and a crying toddler.
Babies have sensitive skin, which can burn very easily.
If you do want to use a hairdryer, here’s how:
Set the Temperature
It’s crucial that you use a dryer with a “cool” setting.
Keep a Safe Distance
Keep the dryer at least 12 inches away from your baby’s head. Chances are, your baby’s hair is thin, so it doesn’t need more than a minute to dry anyway.
Test the temperature on the inside of your arm first. Try to check it at the same distance as you would on your little one.
Use a Brush
You can use a brush, comb, or your fingers to gently stroke the hair while drying. This will speed up the process and avoid tangles.
Never direct the air straight into your baby’s face. This could startle your baby and make them fear bathtime in the future.