How to Give a Bed Bath

Date:

July 16, 2022
Reading Time: 5 minutes

You may be providing short-term care for someone who is recovering from a surgery or illness. Or you may be taking care of someone who has forgotten how to bathe due to a brain disorder such as one of the four most common types of dementia

The reality is personal hygiene often becomes more challenging as we age for a variety of reasons, including mobility problems or decreased energy. 

For bed-bound seniors, a bed bath helps to improve blood circulation and keep them clean by removing dead skin, sweat, and excess oils. During bath time, examine the body for unusual conditions such as bruising, redness, or bedsores. Pay special attention to areas with creases, such as beneath the breasts or the folds on the stomach. Also, look at the groin area and bony areas, such as the elbows and shoulders.

Since the elderly tend to have dry and fragile skin, it is important to rinse extra carefully with water as soap has a drying effect on skin. You can also use a moisturizer or body lotion to help keep the skin hydrated. 

How often should I give a Bed Bath?

For older adults, you can give a bed bath two or three times each week. Bathing more often may put the person at risk for skin problems, such as sores. 

Caring for the Caregiver

To maintain cleanliness, you should always wash your hands before and after performing any hygiene tasks. Consider wearing gloves, especially if the person has been vomiting or has had diarrhea. It’s a good idea to wear a mask if the person has a contagious illness, such as influenza (flu). Always wear gloves when emptying or cleaning urinary drainage bags. 

Make sure that the bed is high enough so that you don’t hurt your back. If it is low, it is okay to put your knee on the bed to reach over when bathing the person.

Materials you will need for a bed bath

  • Four or more face cloths or bath sponges.
  • Cotton Swabs & balls
  • Three or more towels.
  • Two wash basins (one for soapy water, one for rinsing).
  • Soap (a bar of soap, liquid soap, or wipes).
  • “No-tears” or baby shampoo or no-rinse shampoo.
  • Unscented body lotion. Preferably a moisturizer for aging skin.
  • A waterproof cloth to keep the bed dry.
  • A table or stand to hold the materials.

Cleaning the eyes:

  • Place a bath towel under the head, and on the chest to manage splashes.
  • Use a moist cotton ball (or swab) or face cloth and gently wipe from the inner eye to the outer eye.
  • Do not use soap, as it can be irritating to the eye.
  • Soak any crusts on the eyelid for 2-3 mins with a moist hand towel before attempting removal.
  • Dry the eyes with care.

Cleaning the Upper body:

  • Use lukewarm water 
  • Wash, rinse, and pat the forehead, cheeks, nose, neck and ear dry with a moist hand towel or bath sponge.
  • Clean the insides of the ear and nose more thoroughly with cotton sticks
  • Clean the skin folds of the neck carefully as it is more susceptible to collection of dirt.
  • Place a towel under the arm to prevent getting the bed wet.
  • Support the patient’s arm with your palm under his elbow.
  • Clean the arms from the shoulder to the elbow with firm, long strokes.
  • Dip the patient’s hands into a basin of water to wash.
  • Clean under the fingernails with a cotton stick.
  • To clean the chest area, lift the blanket or bath towel carefully without exposing the patient’s body. Reach under and clean the chest.
  • Help the person roll on his or her side so you can wash the back side. (If you can’t roll a person by yourself, get someone to help you so that you don’t hurt your back.) Then help the person roll on his or her back.
  • Pat dry with a clean bath towel.

Shampooing hair:

Determine if a dry shampoo treatment or a wet shampoo is needed. Because older people have drier skin and reduced sweat glands, so they don’t need wet shampoo as often. Using a dry shampoo is less taxing on both the caregiver and the care recipient.

Dry shampoo is a substance that cleans up oil from the scalp without using water; it comes in powder or aerosol spray. The ingredients include oil-absorbing solvents, conditioner, and fragrance. Of course, dry shampoo is not meant to replace regular hair washing and it will not take care of dirt or particles (such as vomit) that are in the hair.

Dry Shampoo:

  • Make sure hair is completely dry.
  • Follow the package instructions. In general:
    • when using the powdered version, it needs to be combed through the hair with fingers. However, it should not be overworked because the oil from the fingers can transfer to the hair.
    • when using the spray version, hold it around 8 inches form the scalp to avoid buildup. 

Wet Shampoo:

  • Add fresh water to the first basin, and place the second empty basin on the floor near the top edge of the bed to catch water. 
  • Position the head and shoulders at the top edge of the bed.
  • Place a waterproof mat or sheet under the patient’s head to keep the bed dry.
  • Brush and comb through the patient’s hair and untangle.
  • Drape a towel over the patient’s shoulders, protect his/ her ears with cotton, and cover his/ her eyes with a washcloth.
  • Slowly pour warm water over the hair until it is wet.
  • Apply shampoo.
  • Start at the hairline and work towards the back of the neck.
  • Lift the head slightly with one hand to wash the back of the head.
  • Massage the head with fingertips and not nails.
  • Rinse the hair with clean, lukewarm water thoroughly.
  • Wrap head in a dry bath towel and be sure to pat dry the patient’s neck, face and shoulders.
  • Dry the hair either with a towel or a hair dryer, but be careful not to burn the scalp.

Cleaning the lower body:

  • At this point ask your care recipient if they need a short break before continuing. 
  • Change the water in the two basins. 
  • Do the same thing you did with the chest area with the abdomen and clean the navel with a little lotion applied onto a cotton swab.
  • To clean the legs, bend the knee and support the leg with your hand to wash his legs.
  • Dip the feet in a basin of water to wash them, taking note to wash between the toes thoroughly.
  • Use a cotton stick to clean under the toenails.
  • Apply lotion to the feet if they are dry, but keep areas between toes dry to prevent fungal infection.
  • To clean the genital areas for uncircumcised males, draw back the foreskin, rinse and dry. For females, spread her external folds and wash thoroughly.
  • Pat dry

To complete:

  • OPTIONAL – If needed, apply a thin layer of body lotion to stay hydrated and improve blood circulation.
  • OPTIONAL – If needed, apply talcum powder.
  • Help them change into a fresh set of clean clothes

Sources: The National Library of Medicine, A Caregiver’s Guide to Personal Care, and personal experience. 


We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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