Bath time is an excellent opportunity to bond with your baby or toddler. And hey, it’s pretty cool watching them splash and squirm and be wowed by bubbles. But there are also plenty of risks involved in bathing your little one, from the minimal, such as when kids poop in the tub, to the serious. Wet kids are slippery after all, making falls and bumped heads a real possibility. And in the case of infants, they are entirely reliant on you to keep their nose and mouth above water. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death among 1- to 4-year-old kids.
To make bath time safe and fun for you and your child, the key is being present, prepared, and attentive. “Safety comes with more engagement; more distraction brings more challenges,” says Dr. Thomas Phelps, a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. Here are 10 common mistakes parents make during bath time that unintentionally put their baby or toddler at risk.
Bath Time Danger #1: Leaving the bathroom
You should never, ever leave a bathing baby unattended, but toddlers need constant watch too. Some parents think it’s fine to leave their tyke alone in the tub for a minute or two—it’s not. “Even at three, four or five years old, they could slip and bump their head, and depending on how much water is in the tub, they could drown,” Phelps says. “It’s like when they are riding a bike, you never know when an accident will happen.”
Bath Time Danger #2: Being unprepared.
Wash cloth, sponge, soap, towel, toys — there’s a lot of stuff required for bath time, and it’s easy to forget an item or two, forcing you to leave the room. “Always make sure you’ve gathered everything you need before turning on the water so you don’t have to leave the room mid-bath to grab something,” Phelps says.
Bath Time Danger #3: Forgetting to test the water temperature.
Little kids, and especially babies, are more sensitive to hot and cold than we are, so take extra caution before plunking them in the tub. To avoid scalding their skin or giving them a deep chill, aim for lukewarm water. If you can control your water heater, set it to not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have control, turn the faucet on at a medium temp first and then gradually increase the heat.
“Then always test the water temperature with your wrist or elbow, because these parts are more sensitive to heat than your fingers,” Phelps says. “For a toddler, also check whether they have the ability to turn on the hot water, because if they can, that’s a risk.” Yet another reason to not turn your back for a second.
Bath Time Danger #4: Filling the tub too full.
Some new parents think it’s wise to fill the tub full because it’ll keep the kiddo warm. But too much water sharply increases the risk of drowning, which can happen in minutes. For a baby, keep the water level at two inches or less, Phelps says. For a toddler, four to five inches will suffice. As your child grows, use your best judgement based on their size, but keep in mind that a tub filled halfway is deep enough for kids of any size to drown.
Bath Time Danger #5: Using a bath seat or ring too early.
Although bath seats and rings seem like they’d be safe, they can tip over, potentially submerging your baby’s face in the water. “Putting kids under one year old in a seat is not OK,” Phelps says. “Don’t rely on anything besides your arms to support them.”
Bath Time Danger #6: Skipping childproofing for the tub.
Tub bottoms can be slippery, posing a real danger to wet, slippery kids. “Toddlers are constantly squirming and flopping around, even the bath becomes even more slippery with soapy water,” Phelps says. “Make sure you have no-slip strips or some other kind of traction on the bottom.”
Also be mindful of the faucet, as it’s easy for a child to bump their head or body into this hard, jutting object. Phelps recommends covering the spout with a sturdy but soft rubber cover.
Bath Time Danger #7: Using too much soap.
Soaps and shampoos can sting children’s eyes, and if they’re laden with chemicals or potent essential oils, they may irritate their sensitive skin. “Use very gentle, nonfragrant, kid-friendly soaps,” Phelps says. You don’t need a lot of soap either. “I was amazed by how clean my own four kids got without a lot of soap,” Phelps says. “Kids usually self-clean pretty well when splashing around.” He also advises soaping up children near the end of their bath so they’re not sitting in soapy water that can bother their skin.
Bath Time Danger #8: Letting bath toys, sponges, and wash cloths fester.
Toys that suck in water can pose a real risk to children after a few uses. “An infectious bacterium called Pseudomonas can grow in inside these toys, such as squishy rubber ducks,” Phelps says. “Try to get all the water out of them after each bath so it doesn’t sit in there and let the bacteria — or mold — grow.” Sponges and wash cloths can be problematic, too, Phelps adds, so be sure to wring them out completely, hang them to try, and replace or launder them often.
Bath Time Danger #9: Bathing babies too long or often.
Even if your baby loves the water, leaving them in the water too long can dry out their skin and, worse, cause hyperthermia. Keep bath time between five and 10 minutes, Phelps advises. As for how often to bath your baby, it’s dependent on the child, their skin type, and whether or not they enjoy bath time. Phelps says most can tolerate a short bath every day, but daily soaks aren’t necessary. Two or three times a week is likely sufficient. He says children with cradle cap, which makes babies’ faces dry and scaly, likely need more baths to wash off the flakes. Kids with eczema, on the other hand, should be bathed less frequently to keep their skin as healthy as possible.