Are newborn mittens necessary?

Newborn mittens are small mittens or socks designed to cover a newborn baby’s hands and feet. They are commonly used in hospitals immediately after birth. The main reason mittens are used is to prevent a newborn from scratching their face with their sharp fingernails. Some key questions around the use of newborn mittens include:

Are newborn mittens really necessary?

Some parents and medical professionals argue that mittens are unnecessary and even potentially dangerous. They point out that newborns have very little control over their limbs in the first place and are unlikely to do much harm by scratching themselves. There are also concerns that mittens may restrict finger and hand movement that is important for development.

What are the potential dangers of newborn mittens?

Some potential dangers of using mittens include restricting hand and finger mobility, preventing babies from learning to control their limbs, and making it harder for babies to bring hands to mouth for self-soothing. There are also concerns around safety – mittens could come off and pose a choking hazard or make it harder for babies to regulate temperature through hands.

When should newborn mittens be used?

Most medical professionals recommend using mittens only for the first few days after birth when nails are sharpest. Mittens shouldn’t be used when babies are sleeping or unsupervised. Some argue mittens should be avoided altogether except in cases where babies show persistently aggressive scratching behavior.

Are there alternatives to mittens?

Rather than mittens, many experts suggest simply trimming and filing newborns’ nails to dull the edges. Baby nail clippers or an emery board can help blunt nails. Cotton gloves or socks can substitute for mittens while still allowing more hand mobility.

The purpose and history of newborn mittens

Newborn mittens have been used in hospitals for many decades. Their primary purpose is to protect a newborn’s face and eyes from accidental scratching. Here is some background on their origins and intended use:

When were newborn mittens first introduced?

Newborn mittens seem to have come into use in the 1940s and 1950s. Earlier baby care guides make no mention of them, but they start appearing in hospital newborn protocols around this era.

Why were they introduced?

Mittens were likely introduced to deal with the very sharp fingernails newborns are born with. Newborns have no control over their arm and hand movements and will accidentally scratch themselves frequently.

What problems were they created to solve?

The main problem mittens aimed to address was newborn babies inadvertently scratching their faces, eyes, and sensitive skin. Scratches on a newborn’s face or eyes can potentially cause infections or other issues.

Are sharp newborn fingernails an actual problem?

Yes, a newborn’s fingernails are usually surprisingly sharp at first. Fingernails are formed in utero and have never been trimmed. The fine motor control to avoid self-scratching develops later.

When are baby fingernails at their sharpest?

Fingernails are sharpest immediately after birth and for the first week of life. After two weeks, they begin dulling down on their own as the baby’s fingers make grasping motions.

Official recommendations on newborn mittens

Various medical organizations and pediatric experts have offered guidelines around using mittens for newborns. Here are the recommendations from major groups:

World Health Organization

The WHO does not make any official recommendation on newborn mittens in their guidance on postnatal care for mothers and babies.

American Academy of Pediatrics

The AAP does not take an official stance on mittens. Individual pediatricians may recommend them based on a baby’s scratching behavior.

American Pregnancy Association

This group notes mittens should only be used for the first few days after birth until the fingernails can be trimmed.

March of Dimes

The March of Dimes suggests using mittens only temporarily and under supervision. They recommend keeping hands as free as possible.

Canadian Pediatric Society

The CPS does not recommend routine mittens usage. They advise trimming nails and using mittens only if aggressive scratching occurs.

When are mittens appropriate to use?

While official recommendations are mixed, most experts agree on these guidelines for newborn mittens use:

Mittens for the first days after birth

It can be reasonable to use mittens briefly in the hospital setting immediately after birth when nails are sharpest.

Only with supervision

Mittens should never be used when a baby is sleeping unattended or without supervision. They can pose a choking risk if dislodged.

Not for extended periods

Prolonged mittens use can impair development. Use should be limited to brief periods or for sleeping when supervised.

If persistent aggressive scratching

For babies who show repeated forceful scratching behaviors, mittens may be warranted for short periods to prevent injury.

Avoid as soon as nails are trimmed

Filing or trimming nails blunts the edges and greatly reduces scratching harm, eliminating the need for mittens.

Alternatives to mittens for newborns

Instead of restrictive mittens, many experts recommend these gentler options to protect newborns’ sensitive skin:

Carefully trim nails

Using baby nail clippers or an emery board to blunt nail edges reduces scratching. This is the top recommendation of most pediatricians.

Lightly file nails

Gently using an emery board to smooth nails is safer than clipping for newborns. Filing can dull nails adequately in most cases.

Cotton gloves or socks

Soft cotton gloves allow more hand mobility than mittens. Cotton socks can substitute for foot mittens.

Onesies with folded sleeves

Snapping onesie sleeves over newborn hands restricts scratching with less mobility impairment.

Swaddling/sleep sacks

Secure swaddling or a sleep sack prevents flailing of arms and legs during sleep.

Are there risks to avoiding newborn mittens?

Going without mittens does involve some potential downsides:

Increased risk of facial scratches

Not using mittens could mean more risk of a newborn’s fingernails accidentally scratching their face, especially around the eyes.

Possibility of infection

Scratches on a newborn’s delicate skin can potentially become infected, though serious infections are extremely rare.

Parental anxiety

Seeing frequent small scratches on their baby’s face may be upsetting for some new parents.

Potential eye injury

There is a very small risk of corneal abrasions or other eye injury if babies rub their eyes forcefully.

However, these risks in healthy babies are quite minimal, and far outweighed by the benefits of free hand movement. Proper nail care reduces risks significantly.

What are the benefits of using mittens?

Here are some of the proposed benefits of using mittens temporarily after birth:

Prevent facial scratches

Mittens provide a physical barrier to stop sharp nails from scratching the face, especially around the eyes.

Protect sensitive newborn skin

A newborn’s skin is extremely delicate and mittens shield it from being scratched or rubbed raw.

Peace of mind for parents

Some parents may worry less about potential scratching with mittens in place.

Allow healing of scratch wounds

If a newborn has existing scratches, mittens may help protect them while healing.

Warmth for hands

Mittens can help keep a newborn’s hands warm, though blankets or onesies would do the same.

However, most experts agree these benefits are relatively minor and short-lived.

What are the downsides of mittens for newborns?

Some potential downsides and risks of newborn mittens include:

Restricted hand and finger motion

Mittens limit a newborn’s ability to move hands and fingers freely which is critical for development.

Prevent bringing hands to mouth

Newborns need to suck on hands for self-soothing. Mittens get in the way of this instinct.

Impaired motor skill development

Free movement of hands and fingers allows babies to start developing fine motor control.

Can fall off and pose choking risk

If dislodged, mittens can become a choking hazard or potential allergen exposure.

Cause overheating

Mittens may cause hands to get sweaty and overheated which can be uncomfortable.

Difficulty regulating temperature

Exposing hands helps babies learn to regulate body heat through extremities.

Interfere with breastfeeding

Mittens get in the way of an infant’s ability to effectively latch and suckle.

Are mittens used for babies in the NICU?

For preterm or ill babies in the NICU, recommendations around mittens are slightly different:

Used selectively

NICU nurses and doctors assess each baby’s needs individually regarding mittens use.

Primarily for IV protection

The main purpose is to protect IV lines and oxygen saturation monitors from being dislodged.

Also used for extremely preterm babies

Babies born significantly preterm have even more fragile skin that may need protection.

Focus on facilitating development

The emphasis is still on enabling movement and development as much as possible.

Monitored frequently

Mittens are checked often to ensure safety and prevent issues like temperature changes or moisture buildup.


While newborn mittens were once routinely used in all hospital births, recommendations have shifted. Today’s medical guidance emphasizes facilitating free movement and development of hand skills. Mittens may still be warranted briefly after birth when nails are sharpest. But most experts advise removing them as soon as possible in favor of gentle nail care options. Protecting an infant’s fragile skin must be balanced with supporting their motor development. With mindful precautions, newborn mittens can usually be avoided altogether.

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