How to test the temperature of your baby’s water is one of those parenting FAQs that almost anyone can rattle off. But it turns out, while it sounds like you might know what you’re talking about the old ‘put your elbow in it’ test isn’t scientifically up too much, and is often just quite impractical.
If you really want to be in the know, here’s our far better and more practical guide for getting your baby and young children’s’ bath temperature right.
1. Test the water with your hand, not your elbow
A simple rule for getting your baby bath to the right temperature is to just test it with your hand. Make sure the water is well mixed and then make a judgement on whether it’s too hot or cold. It’s not a rigorous way of testing, but it’s a sure way to make sure the water isn’t too hot.
The confusion comes from a lot of well-known guides that recommend testing the water with your elbow. We followed those guides to begin with because that’s what the book says, but it turns out there’s no actual scientific reason for this at all! It’s also pretty awkward trying to get your elbow in to test an inch or two of water so for us it quickly became something we discarded.
The truth is there is no evidence that your elbow will feel more sensitive to heat than your hand. There are more sensory neurones on the skin on your hand than on your elbow so it’s not like you’ll get a clearer idea of the temperature on your elbow. The idea might be have come from the idea that if your elbow is less sensitive, if the heat comes through on your elbow, it’s definitely too hot, but that’s not really a great gauge for what the temperature should be, other than ruling out an extreme! At that temperature you’d have felt it on your hand anyway!
The only other possible reason for not testing with your hand is that exposed hands might be susceptible to ambient room temperatures. So if you’ve been out in the freezing cold you might not have a good idea of what the real temperature of the bath water feels like. In those limited cases then maybe waiting for your hands to warm up is a good idea.
You’ll also find testing the water with your hand is a whole lot easier than rolling up your sleeve for an elbow dunk!
2. Add cold first, then mix the hot water
Less to do with getting the temperature right and more to do with running the bath right, but it can be helpful in making sure you err on the side of having cooler water.
Putting the cold water in first makes sure that any children that get into the bath ahead of when you’ve told them, stay safe. If you’re warming up the bath rather than cooling it down, you’ll make sure that if you’re interrupted for some reason (it often happens with three kids under 4 in our house!), the unattended bath isn’t a hazard.
If you’re starting from a hot bath you’ll also find you’ll adjust to the water being too hot as you mix it and test it with your hand. Starting with a cold bath you warm up or at least getting the temperature right if you have a mixer tap, before you put the plug in will make sure you don’t accidently run a bath that you’re happy isn’t too hot simply because you’ve got used to it.
Use the same bath water to wash their hair
If you’re getting bath temperature right make sure you’re not running the bath with your baby or child in the bath at the same time. And the same goes ideally for washing their hair.
If you’re looking for fresh water to wash their hair with, try filling a jug at the sink if you can or if they’re little, just use the regular bath water you’ve just been using to rinse their hair. It might not be the best at getting rid of the suds, but when they’re little and it’s hard to stop them sticking their hand under the tap, it makes things a lot more safe.
4. Use a temperature toy
There are some great temperature checking toys out there that you can use for a bit of peace of mind. Try this duck from Munchkin which makes sure your bath is at least not too hot and that’s probably you’re biggest concern with little ones so it will help a lot.
The bottom of the duck turns white if it is too hot so you can adjust accordingly before adding your baby to the water. Plus once you’re happy it doubles as a great bath duck toy for you little one. Win-Win!
5. Ask a partner for help double checking the water
Sometimes getting the bath temperature right is just a bit daunting. Even after checking with your hand, using a toy to make sure it’s not too hot etc, you might just want a second opinion – usually at that point on whether it’s too cold. Someone else checking the water who hasn’t had their hand in the water for the past 5 minutes is a great option to have.
6. If in doubt, err on the cold side and be ready with a warm hooded towel
First, make sure you’ve got yourself a good bath towel, ideally with a hood and big enough to properly swaddle your baby. But once you’ve done that, a cooler bath is nothing to be afraid of. The big issue in terms of getting too chilly is not getting your baby wrapped up and dried quickly. If you’re on your own and don’t want to risk the bath being too warm, just make it colder to absolutely make sure it’s fine.
7. Keep baths short
If it’s a cooler bath that you’re relying on to make sure you don’t scald your baby that doesn’t have to be a problem, just make sure you’re keeping the baths nice and short. Baby’s don’t much skincare anyway and more time in the water is actually not great for their skin. So there’s plenty of reason to be confident that you’re doing the right thing keeping the bath short anyway. Think safe, cool and short and bath time will be a breeze.
8. Don’t neglect room temperature
While making sure the water temperature isn’t too high should be a big priority, making sure you’re giving a bath to your baby in a nice warm room is also important.
First, bath time will be much more enjoyable for your little one if they’re not cold. A screaming baby throughout a bath time does not make for a happy experience and definitely not a very photogenic one! Second, a warm room makes sure they don’t lose too much heat during bath time or when they’re getting out and dried. Third, a warm room means their bath water (for kids as well) wont cool too quickly.
Keep your bathroom nice and warm pre-bath or if you have a cool bathroom, but have a standalone baby bath, try moving the bathtub to a different room where it’s warmer.