What is a Sponge Bath?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A sponge bath is an alternative to bathing in a tub or showering. In some cases, it is used when water immersion is too challenging, such as for an elderly person with dementia who may be confused or actually fight bathing and showering. It's also common for young babies, since they could slip in large tubs and be injured. Hospitals often employ the sponge bath, particularly for patients who have mobility issues and can’t stand in a shower or safely bathe in a tub. When water is in short supply, this may also be an effective means for cleaning the body, though it is usually not as effective as a shower or a tub bath.

Newborns are given sponge baths in a shallow basin of water.
Newborns are given sponge baths in a shallow basin of water.

When sponge bathing babies, a small bathtub is often used. The baby sits in very shallow water, and a sponge or washcloth is used to clean him. The bath can be a scary process for new parents, since infants are often very wriggly, may not appreciate being naked, and are slippery when they get wet. Having a smaller bathing surface is usually easier than trying to immerse a small baby in a bathtub. In between baths, parents may simply use a small basin of warm water with a little bit of gentle soap to bathe the baby or wash its hair.

Sponges are used to clean people or babies who cannot shower or bath regularly.
Sponges are used to clean people or babies who cannot shower or bath regularly.

In earlier days, it was quite common for a washtub to be used for family bathing. Unless a small child was in the tub, the most convenient way to use the tub was to take cloths or sponges to bring up water to the rest of the body, in a standing or kneeling position. People also often used a pitcher to rinse off soap and dirt.

Warm, wet washcloths are helpful for sponge bathing.
Warm, wet washcloths are helpful for sponge bathing.

In hospital settings or in the care of those with mobility problems or dementia, the sponge bath may be easier on people. A caregiver would use a basin of soapy water and carefully wash the person. Sometimes, a small hair-washing basin can be used so hair can be thoroughly rinsed after shampooing. Usually, after the body has been soaped and gently scrubbed, the bath then includes a rinsing off process, where non-soapy sponges or cloths wash the soap and oils off the body. Regular bathing is particularly important in hospital settings, especially among those with limited mobility, where the inability to turn in bed, and excess of dirt or oil on the body, can cause bedsores that can easily become infected.

During a sponge bath, the reciepient is first doused with soapy water.
During a sponge bath, the reciepient is first doused with soapy water.

The rinsing aspect is usually the most difficult part of the sponge bath, since running cloths or sponges over a soapy body is gradually going to pick up more soap. In response to this, some products now don’t require a rinse process. A few hospitals use shampoos that are merely applied to the hair and clean it, and a few soap products also don’t need to be rinsed off. Regular soap and shampoo should be carefully rinsed in the bath, as these can dry and irritate the skin if they are not removed.

Gentle shampoo can be used for sponge bathing a baby.
Gentle shampoo can be used for sponge bathing a baby.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Exactly how much water can be in the tub when bathing an infant in a sponge bath?


How old were you guys when you started bathing on your own?

I think I was in elementary school when I learned to bathe myself. Until then, our parents would give us sponge baths with a pitcher. I still remember my mom and dad putting a basin in the middle of our room and we would bathe right than and there!

Kind of awkward now that I think about it!


I had to get sponge baths when I broke my leg because bathing in a tub or showering were simply out of the question.

I would put a small stool in the bath tub and then fill a large bucket with hot water. Then I used a sponge to wash myself down. I kept my leg in the cast out of the tub the entire time. My mom would wash my hair separately for me.

It was hard, but it was much better than not bathing at all. It's just gross to go around without bathing.


Johnson's Head to Toe Baby Wash is ideal.

I use two teaspoons in a gallon of warm water, dip and wring out a washcloth and rub yourself down. No Rinsing, no residue and does not dry or irritate your skin. I've been doing this for a year and it works beautifully.


There's a brand called No Rinse that has shampoo and body wash. Check the home health care section of a local drugstore.


I also would like to know what is the name of the soap you don't have to rinse.


I'd like to know the name of the soap which you don't have to rinse off.

Thank you so much for the info!

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