How often do kids really need baths?

If you have kids, chances are bath time has most certainly been met with a groan or two. That’s because few are the kids who love baths. Inevitably they outgrow toddlerhood and begin to see baths as a distraction from much more fun activities, and the daily struggle begins, prompting parents to wonder if the effort is worth it. Do kids really need a bath every day, or is this cultural norm highly overrated?

What the experts say

Contrary to popular belief, babies don’t need daily baths, according to Laura Jana, MD, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics(AAP). It’s not until they begin crawling around in sandboxes and other places, and start eating solid foods, that they get dirty enough to merit a full-body wash. “Bathing is really necessary only to clean your child off when she gets dirty,” pediatrician David Gellar, MD, told BabyCenter.

As long as the diaper area is kept squeaky clean, and the folds under the armpits and groin area are wiped regularly with a wet washcloth, the AAP says babies and toddlers are good to go. Bathing them more frequently than three times per week can dry out their skin and cause eczema, a dry, itchy condition that is associated with asthma and allergies.

If your kids are between 6 and 11, you might be surprised to learn theAmerican Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says they need a bath only about once or twice a week; when they get muddy or swim; or if they have body odor. In other words, if they’re mostly spending time indoors, they can forgo a daily bath. “Exposure to a little grime may protect kids,” Michael Welch, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ section on allergy and immunology, told Parenting magazine. “Because their immune systems are still maturing, they seem to benefit from being around viruses, bacteria, and dirt.”

Once they’re tweens, however, the AAD increases its recommendation to daily baths or showers, plus face-washing twice each day to remove oil and dirt.

What the research says

Vast amounts of research have shown that children’s skin is more delicate than adults’ and therefore more vulnerable to irritants and allergens, which can include soap and water. Eczema usually starts within the first five years of life, and the past few decades have seen an increase in the prevalence of eczema among children in industrialized nations. If the skin becomes too dry, as with daily bathing, eczema can flare. Some research has shown that oil baths (in lieu of water) may actually reduce eczema and other skin conditions. Despite the huge market for moisturizing bath products, a large study on baby skin development concluded that mild cleansers are comparable with washing with water alone.

What the parents say

“I’m the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 9, and they don’t need a daily bath. I think it’s terrible for your skin — a bit of dirt is good for you and strengthens your immune system. Obviously if they’re playing sports or rolling around in the mud, it’s time for a plunge, but otherwise I think they’re better off with a bit of a crust.” — Caroline Turben, N.J.

“I’m a mom of two school-age sons. I’ve always tried to give them a bath every night. I feel that consistency and routine are important and beneficial for kids —and moms!” — Jennifer Bright Reich, Allentown, Pa.

“I have a 1-year-old daughter who does not get a daily bath unless she has been particularly messy while eating or playing outside. My 6-year-old son, however, takes a shower every day. We transition our kids from every couple of days to every day as they grow up, become more active, and if we notice that they need better hygiene.” — Jeffrey Kelly, Seattle, Wash.

“I have two children, ages 5 and 7. They get a bath or shower every other day, and if they go a day extra because it got too late or we just didn’t feel like it, nobody panics. Young children don’t get stinky the way teens or adults do. I believe there is such a thing as being too clean.” — Liz Sagaser, Denver, Colo.

The bottom line

Experts seem to agree there is no particular reason to bathe a child every day, but rather advise doing so intermittently as needed to maintain proper hygiene. The AAP recommends sponge baths only for newborns, at least until the stump of the umbilical cord falls off. Always pat babies dry and apply a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturizing lotion afterward. As children grow, they tend to require more frequent bathing. Consult your doctor to determine what’s best for your family.

Ann Connery

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