By Raising Children Network
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Toddler in bubble bath

You can keep bath time fun and safe for your child by following our golden rules for bath safety. This guide also explains how to prevent drowning and scalding in the bath.

Bath safety basics

Drowning and scalds are the two main risks with bath time. You can avoid these risks by following the four golden rules for safe bath times:

  1. Always supervise babies, toddlers and children under five years in the bath. Never leave older children or siblings to supervise. They don’t have the skills to see and react to an emergency situation.
  2. Check the water temperature is between 37°C and 38°C before you put your child in.
  3. Get everything ready in advance so you can stay with your child for bath time – towel, face washer, cotton wool, clean nappy and clean clothes.
  4. Let the water out as soon as bath time is over.

How to prevent drowning in the bath

Drowning is the major cause of death for children under five years.

Very young children are prone to drowning because they’re top-heavy. They can slip into or under the water very suddenly, and they can drown in only a few centimetres of water. Drowning can be very quick – it can take only a moment. Young children can also drown silently, without coughing or splashing, so you might not even realise they’re in danger.

Never leave your child alone near water, even for a minute. When you and your child are in the bathroom, make sure your child is within arm’s reach and within sight at all times.

Preventing burns and scalds in the bathroom

Young children have very sensitive skin, which means that baths that are too hot can scald them very quickly. The safe temperature for a child’s bath is between 37°C and 38°C (approximately 36°C for a newborn), whereas grown-ups tend to bathe in water between 41°C and 42°C.

The best way to prevent burns or scalds in the bathroom is to ensure the hot water delivered to the basin, bath or shower is at a maximum temperature of 50°C. This isn’t a bathing temperature, however – you still need to mix cold water with the hot water from the tap to get the right bathing temperature.

Here are more tips to help you prevent bathroom burns and scalds:

  • Always run cold water first. Never fill a bath with hot water first. You might be called away, and your child could then fall in and be scalded. Keep your child away from the bath until the water is the right temperature.
  • If your bathroom has mixer taps, run the hot and cold water together. If you need to increase the temperature, add more warm water, not straight hot water. Running the hot water by itself increases the risk your child will put a hand or foot in the stream and be burned.
  • Test the water temperature with your wrist and elbow before your child gets in. It should be comfortably warm, but not hot. If your skin flushes when you put your elbow in, the water is too hot for a child’s skin. You might even want to get a special water thermometer. 
  • Make sure the hot water tap is turned off hard. When the bath is ready, briefly run cold water through the tap so water in the tap won’t burn anyone.
  • Never leave your child in the care of an older child who might be able to turn on the hot water tap.
  • Never leave your child alone in the bath or in the bathroom. She could easily turn on the hot water tap and not be able to turn it off. If you’re called away to the phone or door, wrap your baby in a towel and take her with you.

Important hot water facts
Over 90% of hot tap water scalds occur in the bathroom, when the temperature of water from the tap is set too high.

It’s worth noting that when water is at 60°C, it takes only one second to cause a full thickness scald. At 50°C, it takes five minutes. The difference between 60°C and 50°C can be the difference between pain, hospitalisation and scarring for life, or a minor injury.

The best way to prevent scalds in the bathroom is to reduce the temperature of the hot water tap at the basin, bath and shower to 50°C. By law, all new hot water systems now have this setting. In premises such as early childhood centres, schools and nursing homes, the limit is 45°C.  

You can buy anti-scald devices for your house. For suggestions and advice, talk to a licensed plumber, who might recommend installing a tempering valve. This device reduces the hot water temperature in the bathroom but doesn’t change the temperature in the kitchen. The plumber might also suggest a thermostatic mixing valve, which can be set to deliver hot water at a safe temperature.

What to do if a burn or scald occurs

  1. Remove all clothing at once if the material isn’t sticking to the skin. Every second counts. Clothes hold in heat and can cause a deeper burn.
  2. Cool the burn with running cold water for 20 minutes. This is useful for up to three hours after injury. Cooling the burn is soothing and prevents the heat from ‘cooking’ into the skin’s deeper layers. Don’t use ice. Also avoid cold baths as children can be dangerously chilled by the cold water.
  3. Take off jewellery and watches and anything tight, because scalds cause swelling.
  4. Cover the scald with a clean, non-fluffy cloth – for example, a pillow case, tea towel or sheet. This reduces the danger of infection. This cover has to be removed before treating the burn. Never use butter or oils to cover the burn.
  5. Call an ambulance, or take your child to a hospital or doctor. You should get medical advice for any burns or scalds bigger than a 20-cent coin.
Take a look at our illustrated guide to first aid for burns and scalds. You could print it out and stick it up for quick and easy reference in an emergency.

More tips for safe baths

  • Beware of distractions that could take you away from the bath and cause you to lose track of time. Take the phone off the hook, put the answering machine on or turn your mobile to silent before you run the bath.
  • Run only enough water for washing and play. Belly-button height or about 8 cm is plenty for a child who can sit up on his own.
  • Point mixer taps towards the cold setting.
  • Swirl the water in the bath so there are no hot and cold areas.
  • Watch your child all the time, even if you’re using a bath seat or cradle. A bath seat on its own without your supervision won’t keep your child safe. Find out more from Product Safety Australia’s safety alert on bath aids.
  • Let older siblings join in the fun, rather than putting them in charge. Older siblings might not recognise when a small child is in danger, which is why a grown-up needs to stay with babies and children under five years when they’re in the bath.
  • Empty the bath as soon as you’re finished with it. Keep bathroom and laundry doors shut when you’re not using them so young children can’t get to any taps or water sources on their own.
  • Make sure your child can’t get to the taps, use a non-slip bathmat and have a non-slip surface on your bath. For more information, talk to your child and family health nurse or a safety consultant.

Sometimes bath time can be stressful because it happens at the end of the day when you’ve got lots of other things to do. When too many things are happening at once, it can increase the risk of injuries. If this sounds like your situation, you could consider changing your routine to make things easier.

If you don’t have the time to stay beside your baby in the bath, occasionally give her a wipe instead of a bath. Changing the meal routine of your toddler might also help – for example, give her a main meal at midday instead of later in the day, when other family members might need your time and attention.
  • Last updated or reviewed 08-09-2014