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.
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.
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.
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.
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.