How to Care for Baby Turtles


Caring for baby turtles is a matter of selecting an appropriate habitat, knowing what and when to feed them and preparing for their eventual growth into full-sized turtles.

Baby Turtle Habitat

Things You'll Need

  • 20-gallon aquarium
  • Potting soil without added chemicals or foam
  • Reptile-safe sand
  • Aquarium gravel
  • Nonchlorinated water
  • Aquarium water filter
  • Live, nontoxic plants
  • Small planter
  • Basking rocks
  • Heating lamp or heating mat
  • Terrarium thermometers
  • Full-spectrum, UVB-emitting reptile lights
  • Hollowed-out half log or other hide box

Step 1

Choose an aquarium of a suitable size for the number of turtles you are keeping. A 20-gallon aquarium is suitable for up to four small turtle hatchlings. Use a sturdy, metal mesh lid for ventilation and lighting.


  • Keep in mind that the turtles may require much more space when they are full-grown, depending on the types of turtles you have.

Step 2

If you have a land turtle, such as a box turtle, fill the aquarium with 4 inches of potting soil. Mix in reptile-safe sand to solidify it and help keep the habitat less muddy. Place a shallow water dish in the tank and fill with only enough water for the turtle to completely submerge herself. If you have an aquatic turtle like the red-eared slider, place a shallow layer of aquarium gravel and fill the aquarium with nonchlorinated water. To know how deep, measure the width of your turtle's shell and add 1 inch. This depth of water allows free swimming but the babies won't have any problems making it back to the surface. Place a low-power aquarium filter in the water to keep it clean and aerated. Change the water weekly.

Step 3

In the box turtle setup, plant live, nontoxic plants right in the soil. Consult a herpetologist -- a reptile scientist -- to find out which plants are toxic to which species of turtles. For an aquatic setup, choose a planter without a drainage hole that comes almost to the waterline and fill it with potting soil. Plant a live, nontoxic plant and cover exposed potting soil with aquarium gravel. Place this in the aquarium.


  • Turtles are omnivorous and will nibble on any plants that you place in their habitat. Expect to replace any plants that you use in your turtles' enclosure from time to time. They will also use the plant as cover and a place to rest. Expect to see them climb into the planter or dig near the base of the plant.

Step 4

Add basking rocks to one side of the enclosure. These are sturdy, natural, flat stones that sit above the water line in aquatic enclosures or on top of the substrate in land enclosures and give the turtles a place to sit and warm up. Place rocks on the other side of aquatic enclosures as well to give turtles a place to crawl out of the water and rest.

Step 5

Place a heating lamp specifically designed for reptiles on the lid of the basking side of the enclosure. Place a thermometer in the tank at the level of the basking rock on the basking side and one on the other side as well. Turtles are ectotherms -- cold-blooded animals that need to be able to move along a temperature gradient to regulate their bodies. Turn on the heat lamp and let the enclosure come to temperature.

Your enclosure should measure 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit on the basking side and about 75 degrees on the cool side. Tropical species may have higher temperature requirements. Consult a herpetologist for exact specifications. At night, when the lights are turned off, the habitat can fall to room temperature.

Instead of a heat lamp, you can use an undertank heating mat. Place it under only half the tank and measure the temperature to make sure it is the same as it would be with the heat lamp. This should also be turned off at night.

Step 6

Place a full-spectrum reptile light that emits UVB along the top of their enclosure and keep it on for 10 to 12 hours per day. Turtles rely on UVB to synthesize vitamin D3, aiding in their absorption of calcium, which they need for the health and maintenance of their shells.

Step 7

Place a hollowed-out half log that the turtle can crawl under on the cool-side of the enclosure. Turtles like dry places to hide and sleep. In aquatic setups, construct a hide box out of stone or opaque plastic -- this will hold up better in wet conditions than a log -- and place it on dry land on the cool side of the aquarium.

Feeding Your Turtles

Feed box turtle hatchlings every other day. Aquatic turtles should be fed daily. As they get older, turtles feed less often, but growing turtles need more nutrients. While most adult turtles are omnivores with the exception of the herbivore tortoise, baby turtles often consume significantly more protein than plant matter. Offering both plants and meat to your baby turtle will allow her to choose foods for the nutrients she needs. Your baby turtle can eat:

  • Turtle pellets labeled specifically for the species you have
  • Mealworms
  • Tubifex worms
  • Chopped-up nightcrawlers and earthworms
  • Small crickets
  • Small apple or pond snails
  • Guppy fry
  • Dark green lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Beans
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Aquatic plants, such as water lily, anacharis, duckweed, water fern and water hyacinth
  • Melon, apricot, berries, apple or banana as a special treat

Baby tortoises can eat the veggies and fruit listed above as well as:

  • Commercially prepared tortoise food
  • Chickweed
  • Henbit
  • Plantain
  • Grape leaves
  • Hibiscus
  • Chicory
  • Escarole
  • Collard greens


  • While tortoises will accept insects and other forms of protein, be cautious of overfeeding. Too much protein can result in "pyramiding," a shell deformation caused by an overabundance of protein in the tortoise's diet.

Growing Up

Baby turtles don't stay small forever. Your tiny little alligator snapper may become a 175-lb. turtle someday, and preparing for that eventuality is part of your obligation as a pet owner. For aquatic turtles, make sure you're increasing the depth of their water as their shell grows. Once turtles reach sexual maturity, house males separately from one another. Provide ample room to move, swim and feed as your turtles get bigger.


  • Remember, small turtles will thrive in a habitat bigger than they need, but a full-grown turtle in a habitat that is too small will be neither happy nor healthy. Start expanding their habitats sooner rather than later.

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