Until recently, the accepted hospital routine was to cleanse away any vernix (that white, greasy coating) almost as soon as babies were born. But as science begins to uncover all the benefits of vernix for babies after delivery, this practice is thankfully beginning to change.
The most current research supports what many moms have known all along—that it really is wiser to delay baby’s first bath. That’s because it turns out that vernix is nothing short of a super-substance, protecting baby’s health and easing her transition to life outside the womb. And the early skin-to-skin contact that takes place instead of immediate bathing enhances baby’s wellness as well (which we’ll discuss in more detail in a bit)! All in all, that’s a lot more important than getting her “camera ready”.
What Exactly Is Vernix?
Many babies are lucky enough to be born covered in a layer of creamy white stuff that looks kind of like melted cheese. (Some babies may be lacking this coating if they’re very premature or postmature.) This substance, called vernix, is made up of a whopping 41 proteins (25 of which are unique to vernix!), along with skin cells, water, lipids, and wax.1 Vernix forms a waterproof barrier to shield baby’s delicate skin during the months she’s bathed in amniotic fluid and it continues to protect her after delivery—so much so that the World Health Organization now recommends waiting at least 24 hours before bathing a newborn.2
Why Delay Newborn Bathing?
Putting off baby’s bath anywhere from 12 hours to several days gives her a healthy start in all these important ways:
• Improved temperature regulation: It’s a lot colder out here in the world than it was in the womb, and your baby probably doesn’t yet have much padding to help her deal with this cooler environment—she needs to expend a lot of energy just to stay warm! Leaving her vernix coating intact helps her conserve energy to decrease the risk of a dangerous drop in body temperature.3
• Healthy blood sugar levels: Coming into a whole new world can be stressful for babies, and having to endure a bath as soon as she makes her appearance only adds to that stress. All that crying and the release of stress hormones can cause her blood sugar to drop and to complicate things, she’s also just lost the placenta as a blood sugar source, so she needs to take in nourishment. But, lowered blood sugar levels may make her too sleepy to feed. Delaying that first bath even as little as 12 hours increases baby’s odds of maintaining proper blood sugar levels.4
• Better mom-baby bonding: What new babies need most during those first hours and days on earth is to snuggle up and spend quality time with mom. The benefits of skin-to-skin time can’t be underestimated—mom and baby get the opportunity to establish a special bond, while baby forms a first impression of this world as a safe, warm, and loving place. Her heart rate, breathing, and temperature stabilize—and she’ll even gain weight faster!5 And there’s an additional perk: All the breastfeeding, cuddles, and kisses going on also effectively help jumpstart baby’s developing microbiome, which will support her health for years to come.
• Greater breastfeeding success: When baby enjoys skin-to-skin time with mom immediately after delivery instead of being whisked away to a bath, she has a better shot at breastfeeding successfully.6 That’s because babies are constantly sucking and swallowing amniotic fluid in the womb, so if they’re offered the breast right away, latching on to drink is pretty automatic. If your baby doesn’t get to spend those first crucial minutes skin-to-skin at the breast, she may become so wrapped up in crying that the technique of latching on and drinking doesn’t quite register in her mind.
• Protection from unwanted microbes: Vernix is a natural protective skin barrier—and the special proteins it contains have an antimicrobial effect against many of the types of bacteria, microbes, and fungi that could compromise your baby’s health during delivery and the days immediately following.7,8 Putting off that first bath buys baby some extra time to reap this unique protection.
• Healthy, hydrated skin: Not bathing your newborn right away keeps her skin in top condition while she’s adjusting to life in a dry environment. Vernix is a natural antioxidant-rich moisturizer that keeps baby’s skin hydrated and at just the right pH to avoid flaking, irritations, and other skin issues. And, vernix has wound healing properties for babies and adults as well, so if you delivered vaginally, exposure to your baby’s vernix is speeding your own healing! In the unlikely event that your baby is injured, she’ll also recover faster if she’s still covered in vernix.7 You can even massage vernix into your baby’s skin for a healthful bonding experience. She’ll enjoy your gentle, loving touch—and her skin will appreciate the moisturizing protection you spread around.
After 24 hours to several days, baby’s first bath will be a lot more fun for both of you if you keep her wrapped up and warm while washing her face and hair. Once her head is clean and dry, you can then gently sponge the rest of her body with warm water and a soft cloth. Soap isn’t generally necessary for the first few baths since babies really don’t get that dirty.
When you’re ready to start using a gentle baby cleanser, avoid anything antimicrobial—since this could upset the balance of friendly flora in her skin microbiome. You may also want to supplement with a high quality, time-released probiotic like PRO-Moms during this time to optimize your own microbial health while introducing your baby to lots of wonderful probiotic strains during breastfeeding and loving skin-to-skin contact.
Delaying newborn bathing gives both you and your baby a chance to recover from childbirth, and spend this special time getting to know one another. As your baby grows and becomes acclimated to life outside the womb, bathing is much more likely to feel cozy and connected than like a necessary evil (that actually isn’t necessary at all).
1. Tollin, M., Jägerbrink, T., Haraldsson, A., Agerberth, B., & Jörnvall, H. (2006). Proteome Analysis of Vernix Caseosa. Pediatric Research, 60(4), 430-434. doi:10.1203/01.pdr.0000238253.51224.d7
2. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Recommendations on newborn health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/documents/guidelines-recommendations-newborn-health.pdf
3. Lunze, K., Bloom, D. E., Jamison, D. T., & Hamer, D. H. (2013). The global burden of neonatal hypothermia: systematic review of a major challenge for newborn survival. BMC Medicine, 11(1). doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-24
4. McInerney, C. M., & Gupta, A. (2015). Delaying the First Bath Decreases the Incidence of Neonatal Hypoglycemia. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing, 44, S73-S74. doi:10.1111/1552-6909.12650
5. Becky Wunderlich and Hannah Elwell School of Nursing Cedarville University. (2012). Skin-to-skin Care Related to Thermoregulation. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1023&context=pharmacy_nursing_poster_session
6 Preer, G., Pisegna, J. M., Cook, J. T., Henri, A., & Philipp, B. L. (2013). Delaying the Bath and In-Hospital Breastfeeding Rates. Breastfeeding Medicine, 8(6), 485-490. doi:10.1089/bfm.2012.0158
7. Singh, G., & Archana, G. (2008). Unraveling the mystery of vernix caseosa. Indian Journal of Dermatology, 53(2), 54. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.41645
8. Yoshio, H., Tollin, M., Gudmundsson, G. H., Lagercrantz, H., Jörnvall, H., Marchini, G., & Agerberth, B. (2003). Antimicrobial Polypeptides of Human Vernix Caseosa and Amniotic Fluid: Implications for Newborn Innate Defense. Pediatric Research, 53(2), 211-216. doi:10.1203/01.pdr.0000047471.47777.b0
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.