Book shoutout: One of my favorite young economists, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, has a new book out tomorrow called The Black Agenda. It’s a curated series of essays from Black scholars and writers dealing with the major social and economic problems of our time. Readers of this newsletter will be drawn especially to essays on Black maternal health, and the importance of representation in children’s books.
I’ve known Anna for a number of years now, and she is among the most impressive women I have ever met. The book is important.
On Wednesdays I do video Q&As on Instagram. Most of the questions are about COVID, baby sleep, breastfeeding … the usual suspects. But a few weeks ago, someone asked me a slightly panicked question about bath mold. And I was reminded that even as the big parenting stressors occupy a lot of brain space, there are other parenting questions everywhere. I got interested in this question, and it led me to the broader topic of whether we need baths at all, toys or no. So today, we’ll take a hot-bath break.
Does my child need a bath? If yes, how often?
- I’m going to focus here on the pre-adolescent stage. If you have an adolescent or a teenager, they need a bath (or, probably, a shower) at least once a day.
- There are some skin conditions for which baths may be helpful (or not). For example, at least one small randomized trial in kids suggested that frequent bathing (followed by moisturizer application) could help treat atopic dermatitis. More generally, if your child has skin issues, it’s best to ask a dermatologist about baths.
When we turn to the more mundane question of bathing younger children, I think there are two main points.
First, sometimes your child is actively dirty. Like, they spent the afternoon rolling in the mud, or they had a sufficiently bad poop explosion that their entire back is coated and … well, you get the picture. In these situations, it is a good idea to bathe them. A similar logic extends to days when a child has been covered in bug spray or sunscreen. Basically, there are some days when you just need a bath.
But, second: dirt in all forms is not the enemy. If your kid goes to sleep with a grass stain on their elbow or soil under their fingernails, that’s fine. In fact, exposure to dirt and germs is part of how we develop a healthy immune system. Beyond that, too much bathing can lead to irritated, dry skin.
The question, to me, is what the right cadence is for a regular, not-mud-oriented bath. Should it be every night, every other night, once a week …?
There is no strongly data-based answer to this. Dermatologists recommend something on the order of two to three times a week. Once a week might be enough. The only general consensus is that you do not need to bathe your child every day. But it isn’t that there is a great study showing that bathing every day is bad, just that there is no reason to think you would need to, and biological knowledge about skin suggests that daily bathing could remove oils that keep skin from drying out.
There are some times as a parent — and they can be very freeing — when the answer from the science is “it really doesn’t matter that much.” This is one of those times!
Of course, if data doesn’t answer the question, how can you possibly decide? Here are a few options:
- Let your child choose. Bathe them less if they do not like it.
- Think of the bath as part of the bedtime routine, and work it in at a regular cadence. With my older kid, we were rigid about the idea that there was a set bedtime routine but didn’t want to bathe her every day. We were terrified about deviations from the routine, though, so we instituted “bath night” and “wiping night,” where “wiping” just meant putting a wet washcloth on your face to pretend the routine was the same. (I am realizing how insane this sounds as I write it, but it’s the truth.)
- Embrace chaos! Bathe whenever you find the time, or when your kid is very dirty.
OK, so the unimportance of bath timing is freeing. But surely there is more to worry about? Yes. Well, one yes, and one no.
I will not belabor this in a light newsletter, but: bathtub drowning is a significant risk for babies and small children. Babies or little kids should not be left alone in the bath, period.
Do you have rubber duckies in your bath? Or any plastic toys? Do you see little black marks or smudges around the area where the water comes out of them?
Here is the thing: if you were to cut open that rubber ducky, what you would find is that the inside is coated in a layer of flaky black mold. (In the service of helping you, I cut open one of ours and, well, here you go on pictures.) This kind of mold develops in many places where water just sits — parts of your electric toothbrush, for example. It’s super-gross. It is a good thing my husband doesn’t read this newsletter, because even mentioning this could make him vomit.
So, we can establish that this idea is disgusting. It’s also extremely difficult to avoid if you have toys — basically, the mold develops when things stay wet, and it’s very hard to completely dry your rubber duck and toys even if you remember to drain the bathtub after use. Your choice is, pretty much, toys and mold, or no toys and no mold. Kids like toys. Is the mold dangerous?
Probably not, no. If your child swallows too much of it, it could in principle make them nauseous or vomit. This is both unlikely in terms of volume, and also self-limiting. If you see a lot of mold floating around in the bath, this is probably a signal you want to replace the toys. But even swallowing a small amount of mold is not likely to be an issue.
The exception is if a child is immunocompromised or has a mold allergy. In that case, you want to be more careful. The easiest/only way to do this is not to have bath toys of this type. Get some bath crayons.
The world of parenting has many fears and stresses. Some good news is that, mostly, baths should not be one of them.