Ear infections are one of the most common childhood illnesses, affecting as many as 50 percent of all children before their first birthday, Boston University School of Medicine professor of pediatrics Jerome Klein reports on the UpToDate website. Getting water in your baby's ear during a bath normally does not cause an ear infection. However, always talk to your child's doctor about whether you should keep water out of your baby's ears if you're concerned.
Preventing Otitis Media
The ear consists of an inner, middle and outer portion. The tympanic membrane, more commonly called the eardrum, separates the outer and middle ear. Water can't penetrate the eardrum to cause a middle ear infection, medically termed otitis media. Middle ear infections most often occur when a cold or upper respiratory infection interferes with normal functioning of the Eustachian tube, which leads from the nasopharynx (upper throat) to the middle ear.
External Otitis Media
Water in the ear can cause swimmer's ear, an outer ear infection also called otitis externa. Swimmer's ear most often occurs when water sits in the ear for long periods of time, allowing bacterial growth. If your baby has a history of otitis externa, your doctor may suggest tubes that fit into the external part of the ear during water exposure, including baths. Drying the external portion of your baby's ear well with a towel to remove any fluid after baths also helps prevent otitis externa.
Bathing With a Ruptured Eardrum
If your baby has a ruptured or perforated eardrum, the hole in the eardrum allows water to enter the middle ear. Water entering the middle ear could increase the risk of a middle ear infection. A severe ear infection or trauma can cause a ruptured eardrum. In most cases, the hole is small and heals spontaneously. If a large part of the eardrum ruptures, the hole won't heal on its own. An unhealed opening in the eardrum allows water to enter the middle ear. If your baby has a ruptured eardrum, your doctor may recommend ear plugs during his bath. A large hole in the eardrum may need surgical repair.
If your child has recurrent ear infections, your doctor may recommend placing ear tubes into the eardrum, to keep pressure and fluid from building up in the middle ear and to drain the ear if infection occurs. If your baby has ear tubes, your doctor may suggest using cotton balls or custom ear plugs to keep water out of the ears during baths.