Traditional leg bath for babies

A newborn baby in any family is a special affair in Indian homes, the baby undergoes a series of traditional rituals that are primarily carried out by the grandmother and mom.

It is said that a baby needs particular care and attention for the first 40 days of its life, as they are most vulnerable during this time. Some mothers choose to continue the traditional bathing & massage ritual right up till their first birthday. 

The ‘leg-bath’

The baby either lies along the legs with his head towards the feet and head towards the body or is placed across the legs facing downwards. Usually, the baby is placed facing downwards when the mother wants to wash his hair.The mum will not sit in this manner as long as her stitches are healing.

So often, it is the grandmother or a dai who bathes the newborn.

Being three-pronged, and often performed by the leg-bath, the process starts off with a rather forceful body massage and scrub, followed by a warm-to-sometimes-hot bath. It is concluded by ‘smoking’ the towel-dried infant with lobaan/sambrani which are incensed fumes.

Several babies respond to the ritual either with steadily escalating cries, or a stupor-like sleep from being too tired to rebel. So, if a good thirty minutes have passed and that distressed baby isn’t crying anymore, chances are the ‘maalishwali’ has done a ‘good’ job.

Elders cite a host of reasons in support of what new parents perceive to be an agonizing procedure. The oil massage, they say, straightens infants’ bones, develops muscle tone and provides the daily exercise they need. The subsequent body scrub-comprising either besan (gram flour) or a mix of powdered dal (lentils), turmeric and milk cream-is believed to remove excess body hair and improve complexion.

The actual bath, wherein the baby lies on the outstretched legs of the – grandmother or mother – is doused with warm water, soaped, and rinsed. This bathing ritual is claimed to be refreshing and relaxing. And finally, ‘smoking’ the infant over a crucible of embers to which ajwain (caraway) seeds and incense are added is not only considered to be a natural hair dryer, but is also believed to have therapeutic value, especially against the common cold.

Advocating the use of smoking, she says, “After giving my daughter a bath, my mother smokes her hair to dry it properly. Another property of dhoop (incense) is the smell. Since little children can’t be sprayed with perfume, incensed smoke is used. Smoke therapy also helps ward off infections, mostly in genital areas.”

ALSO WATCH: How to give your baby a massage and leg bath click here

Correct method of bathing a baby

  1. Whoever bathes your baby, make sure he/she is placed comfortably and is held firmly. He/she will probably already be slippery from his/her oil massage and will become even more so when he gets wet and soapy. To reduce the chances of your baby slipping, a towel or cotton cloth can be placed on the legs for your baby to lie on.
  2. Always be present for the baby bath ‘in person’.
  3. The bath of the newborn should not last more than 5 minutes, prolonged bath increases the hydration of the skin and reduces the threshold for friction
  4. For the initial baths (1- 2 months), sterile or potable clean water is sufficient. (you can collect only the hot water in a bucket about 2-3 hours prior to the bath and allow it to cool, then add hot water to get the right temperature)
  5. Soaps and cleansers are best avoided in the first few weeks of life and later very less amount should be used. Too much soap leads to dryness of the skin. Always prefer a liquid soap over a bar of soap (I recommend “Cetaphil body wash” or “Johnson’s Tip to Toe wash”)
  6. The baby should be bathed in a warm room, and should be dried quickly and thoroughly from head to toe, followed by wrapping in a warm dry towel and placing next to the mother.
  7. Try to minimize the uncomfort and subsequent amount of crying by the baby, for example minimize the pull over the skin, handling too tightly, avoid hot water, too much rubbing. If baby enjoys the bath, its a smooth ride thereon.
  8. Most baby shampoos in the market contain anionic surfactant which ensure adequate cleansing. The pH should be close to that of tears and, thereby, won’t cause irritation to the eyes.  It is recommended to use “Johnson’s baby No Tears Shampoo” or Elizabeth Anne’s products)


ALSO WATCH: How to give your baby a massage and leg bath click here

  1. The care of the baby skin after bath is very important to prevent dryness, specially in case of atopic dermatitis and in the winter season
  2. Always dry the baby with a soft towel thoroughly and avoid water collection in body folds like the neck, arm pits, diaper area.
  3. Apply a moisturizer “cream” (I recommend Cetaphil RESTORADERM moisturizer) after drying the baby with a soft towel. Apply evenly over the face, abdomen, back and limbs. Use thinner layer of moisturizer in the summers or use a baby lotion (For example Johnson’s Baby Lotion or Elizabeth Anne’s products, which is a shorter acting moisturizer). In winters moisturizers have to be applied twice a day.
  4. Talcum powder is useful to absorb moisture during hot and humid weather. They can prevent maceration over the skin folds in infants. However, too much of their use can lead to blockade of sweat-duct pores resulting in miliaria formation. Applying talcum powder all over the body is not necessary, powder only the diaper area, to avoid moisture collection.
  5. Do not wrap the baby tightly after bath.
  6. In case of Identical twins apply a “kajal” mark over the forehead to avoid confusion.
  7. Do not apply “kajal” or “surma” in the eyes.
  8. Avoid using accessories like bangles, necklaces, threads, etc.

What do medical professionals say about this bathing method?

Noted paediatrician Dr Pinky Paliencar, on the other hand, dismisses forceful massaging techniques and smoke therapy for an infant. “Normal oil application by the mother herself-not a ‘maalishwali’-helps keep the baby warm in colder climates and aids mother-child bonding in general. Massaging doesn’t straighten bones but it does build muscle tone, and should be done gently. Other aspects such as gram flour scrubs and smoke therapy have no medical basis and should be avoided. Exposing a baby to smoke is a no-no because it leads to respiratory problems and the possibility of sustaining burns.”

Paliencar also warns against squeezing infants’ nipples, as this could result in the development of painful abscesses. Incidentally, research indicates that a minor hormonal imbalance, which causes a small amount of milk to be produced by a baby’s breasts, resolves by itself a few weeks after birth.

Doctors underscore the importance of gentle massaging for all infants, more so for premature babies and for those requiring physiotherapy to tackle certain medical conditions.

Why are atta and/or ubtan applied on a newborn baby before a bath?

Atta is rubbed over the baby’s forehead and body to remove hair. This atta massage is also believed to promote blood circulation and aid in removing any toxins in the body. The attais first kneaded into a soft dough ball (much like that used to make rotis). The ball is then dipped in some warm oil, before it is applied to the baby’s body. Often a mixture of almond oil and turmeric haldi is used to soften the dough ball. 

Some hair might well come off while rubbing your baby with the dough. But the facial and body hair you see on your newborn usually falls off on its own as well. 

Sometimes, if facial and body hair run in the family, the hair will not fall out on its own. But as your baby grows, you might notice it less. Facial and body hair is determined by your baby’s genes. If your baby has the genes that give body or facial hair, rubbing atta will not reduce or permanently remove the hair. In such a case, even if hair falls out with the atta massage, it will grow back in.

What other traditional bathing rituals are followed and are they safe for my baby?

Bathing rituals differ from region to region and some of them can be unsafe for your baby if proper precautions aren’t taken. Most of these are done by maalishwalis or sometimes even recommended by family members.

Here are a list of traditions that are commonly practised across the country and what you should keep in mind when trying them on your baby:

  • Custom: Some families apply powdered asafoetida (hing) or carom seeds (ajwain) to a baby’s navel to reduce colic and improve digestion. Sometimes the powdered hing is heated before being applied or it is mixed in a little water. 
    Caution: If you choose to do this, make sure your baby’s umbilical stump has fallen off and the wound has healed fully. If you apply anything to your baby’s stump area before it is fully healed, there is a risk of causing an infection there. Even after the wound has healed, it is safer to apply the mixture along the rim of your baby’s belly button. This way it won’t collect inside the navel.
  • Custom: Some families apply kajal or surma to their baby’s eyes. Some make the kajalthemselves every time by burning a wick and collecting the soot on a smooth surface like the back of a spoon or a silver plate. Others use kajal bought from the market. 
    Caution: Applying anything directly in your baby’s eyes can introduce dirt or bacteria and cause an infection like conjunctivitis. Even if you make the kajal freshly every day, your hands or fingernails might not be clean enough. If you’d like to use kajal for your baby, then you could put a small tikka or bindi on his forehead.
  • Custom: Often a baby has swollen breasts for the first few days after birth. Many elders advise squeezing the breasts during a massage to get the milk-like substance out and reduce the swelling. This swelling is quite normal and caused by your baby’s exposure to your hormones just before birth. It will subside on its own within a few days from birth.
    Caution: It is best not to squeeze your baby’s breasts because doing so can lead to an infection and cause a cyst to form.
  • Custom: A newborn baby is often fed honey (shahad or madhu). It is believed to be auspicious for the baby. 
    Caution: Never give a baby younger than one year honey. It may cause a serious but rare form of food poisoning called botulism that can be fatal.
  • Custom:Often after a bath, oil is put in the ears, nose and navel of a baby. It is believed to be healthy. Some mothers even place a coin on the baby’s stump in the hope that the stump will go inside quickly.
    Caution: Putting anything in your baby’s ears is not advisable as it can lead to an ear infection. Similarly applying oil or a coin on your baby’s navel could cause an infection especially if your baby’s umbilical stump hasn’t dried out yet. Also, there is no scientific evidence to prove that a coin will help in how your baby’s belly button heals.
  • Custom: Swaddling too tight. It is often believed that a baby’s legs need to be held together and kept straight for them to develop properly. So the baby is wrapped up tight with his legs kept straight. 
    Caution: If you swaddle your baby in this way, with his legs pressed together and straight down, he is more likely to develop problems with his hips. Find out how to swaddle your babythe right way.
  • Custom: Tying a black thread or nazariya around the neck or wrist. This is done to protect the baby and keep the evil eye (nazar) away.
    Caution: If the thread is tied too tightly it can affect the blood circulation. The dye used on the thread can also irritate your baby’s skin. You could tie the nazariya loosely around your baby’s ankle instead.
  • Custom: Pushing the foreskin of a newborn baby’s penis back. Often while massaging or preparing the baby after a bath, the foreskin of a baby’s penis is pushed back in the belief that this will help it to detach from the tip of the penis. It is normal for the foreskin to be attached to a baby boy’s penis. The skin will detach on its own by the time your baby is two years old.
    Caution: You could hurt your baby by pulling the foreskin back because it can tear easily. If it tears, it will leave scarring. It may also cause problems for your little boy later on.
  • Custom: Feeding janam ghutti after a bath. In many families, babies are given a mix of herbs that are crushed and made into a paste with some water. The herb mix or paste can be bought or made at home. The mixture is given to a baby after his bath to improve digestion and for his general well being and growth.
    Caution: If you are breastfeeding your baby, know that your milk is best suited to your baby and provides all the benefits for his digestion and growth that he needs. If you feed him anything else, you have to be extremely careful not to introduce any germs. Your baby’s immune system is not yet mature at birth and so he is vulnerable to getting infections. It is best that you get advice from your doctor before feeding him the janam ghutti.

Source: BabyCenter 

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