Don't Wash That Baby! Why Many Believe Newborn Baths Should Be Postponed

Newborn baths are essentially standard operating procedure in a hospital delivery. Yet, there’s many significant reasons to postpone that newborn bath. It might seem gross to many Americans. You may be thinking about the white coating, called vernix, and how that should be cleaned off.

Vernix does more than act as a protective barrier from liquids while in the uterus.  It acts as an antioxidant, skin cleanser, moisturizer, temperature regulator, and a natural, safe antimicrobial for the new baby post delivery. Click through the links to find research that points to the tremendous benefits of postponing the newborn infant’s first bath.

Essentially, a newborn is bathed in a hospital, which is the home of the strongest and most drug-resistant microorganisms. This bath washes the natural protective coating from the newborn’s skin. This protective barrier is rich with natural flora, emollients, proteins, and antimicrobials… but we wash it off. In washing it off, we leave the newborn’s skin open to colonization from the hospital’s microorganisms. We allow the skin to dry out, and we in turn, apply manufactured, less adequate moisturizers to compensate. We also, no matter how well we attempt to dry a wet baby off, leave the skin damp at a time when temperature regulation is vital. To compensate, we bundle and cap the baby. This compensation eliminates important skin-to-skin contact that is important in proper flora building and crucial olfactory (scent) bonding.

As if these medical reasons weren’t enough of a case for delaying that first bath, an article in the Lancet suggested that interrupting the initial bonding process with a wash down can cause significant damage to successful breastfeeding. When a baby is placed on a mother directly, after about a twenty minute acclimation period, the infants in their study began to make crawling movements towards the breast. This was followed promptly by the rooting reflex. Before long, most of these infants were breastfeeding. Remarkably (or not so remarkably, perhaps) more infants in the group that were allowed this bonding period demonstrated correct “suckling technique” than infants in the group that was separated from their mothers. (24 out of 38 in the contact group, as opposed to only seven out of 34 in the separation group.)

Tell me, is vernix really SO gross looking, that we are willing to wash away something so amazing and interrupt such a crucial period of bonding?

 

49 Comments

  1. Mellissa C

    Wow that’s good to know. All I knew was that it was a protective barrier. Will all hospitals respect your wishes? I’m not a mom yet but we are TTC and I would love to delay the bathing but I know that some hospitals don’t respect your wishes and will continue to do it.

    • Jasmine

      We registered with the hospital on our first birth. We took a birth class at our local cloth diaper store and learned a lot about what was best for baby, according to current research. At the hospital tour we were amazed that they practiced a lot of the “new” natural things we learned about like delaying cord clamping, immediate skin to skin contact, breastfeeding, etc. All you have to do is ask and if that hospital doesn’t respect your wishes, there are many others you can try. Or, try a home birth or a birthing center.

  2. My first son, born in England, was never bathed at the hospital. And we waited until after his cord fell off before we bathed him at home (around 5 or 6 days after he was born). He was breastfed from the first minutes after birth and for 17 months after that. No issues. My second son, born in the USA, was taken from me, bathed and returned, and when he didn’t latch in the first two seconds, a handsy nurse came over and started yelling at me that I was doing it wrong. She grabbed my breast and forced it into his mouth and had me in tears with her telling me that if I didn’t get the hang of it quickly, they were going to give him a bottle. He’s now 4 months old and a champion breastfed baby. He doubled his birth weight in just 6 weeks.

    But I’ll tell you what, early bath or not, I much prefer the midwife-led, one on one treatment I had in the UK rather than the overwhelming experience in the US. Especially as my partner had barely any interaction with me because there were so many nurses, doctors and other staff who insisted on “helping” when they were not wanted.

    • JustCorey

      In the US it depends on the hospital as to the experience. I have two sons who were both born in US hospitals. I was very fortunate with my first experience and actually had helpful nurses who encouraged my husband to place the baby on my right after birth. We did have both our sons washed after just because I didn’t know any different. However my first son latched right on (since I had the initial skin to skin before they took him to bathe and measure) and was BFed until 16 months. My second experience was awful, the nurses didn’t pay any attention to me or my husband, they took the baby right away, and when I wasn’t able to latch they took my son and gave him a bottle. My second son was not as interested in the breast for most of his first few months though we never gave him another bottle until 6 months, then he didn’t go back to the breast. I will never go back to that hospital because of that awful experience and my husband agrees. Plus we are discussing home birth when we have our next child, and now that I have read about the bathing I will have to discuss that with my husband too.

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  4. Paxlyn

    Wow articles this this kind of scare me, how over medicalised birth is in some parts of the world. Having my babies in Australia the midwife actually told us not to bath our baby until all that wonderful vernix had soaked in, it took a few days.

  5. Amanda

    My experience delivering in the UK couldn’t have been more different. My son was snatched away, toweled off and put in a bassinet. When I asked to hold him I was scolded and told not to “spoil” him. I had to beg for help with breastfeeding and I was just generally treated like a nuisance — the entire 6 hours they let me stay after a 22-hour labor. When I delivered my daughter in the States they let me hold her right away, all the wiggly, slippery goodness of her. And I got help from a lactation consultant. And we were allowed to stay 2 nights.

    • Hyman

      I have to say I agree with you, and I had an amazing hospital birth experience.

      I went in completely prepared though, armed with a polite but well thought out and written birth plan, plus my birth doula and all the knowledge I had read about and researched for several months.

      I labored in a jacuzzi, had my son on my hands and knees kneeling over a yoga ball, than he was placed directly on my chest where his cord stayed uncut until it was done pumping, and he latched and nursed for around 2.5 hours. Everything else was delayed. I declined all vax and I declined a bath, I declined circ ….

      We stayed in the hospital 48 hrs and 21 mo later he’s still breast feeding and amazing.

    • Susan

      I agree,my 3 children were all born in the U.S. and the hospitals were great. I had professional medical people that could handle anything. They helped me with breast feeding and never rushed me or yelled at me. I believe the hospitals are safe. The very reason we have diseases that were eradicated is because of the people that say vaccines are bad and scared mothers into not getting their children immunized. These same people are the ones that are doing everything they can to scare new mothers away from a hospital.

      Don’t take my word or the people against hospitals and vaccines either..do your own research. You will find that if this trend of not immunizing isn’t stopped then the world will be full of diseases that can’t be gotten rid of again. Without immunizations the viruses can mutate into something that the scientists will have to discover whole new ways to eradicate. Do you want your children to die of diseases that the immunizations/vaccines could have prevented?..Think about it.

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  7. This makes total sense to me! Baby has ‘lived’ with it for approximately 9 months, it’s a natural protective barrier. By washing it off, we ‘unprotect’ baby….which is NOT what we want. Wished I had known this when I was having my babies. I would have insisted on it!

    • Cara Bennett

      I’ve had two home births and no, the vernix is quite thick and doesn’t come off in the water. We waited at least a week to wash either of them (until the umbilical stump fell off naturally).

  8. I like all of the points mentioned above, and will add a couple of different comments. When you do get around to bathing your baby, please get a dechlorinating device so you are not washing your baby with chlorinated water, which is bad for the baby in several ways… not good for skin flora ecology, and also unhealthy chlorine fumes can be inhaled. There are at least a couple of low cost devices available on line. With regard to not washing off vernix, I have encountered girl babies who, even after a several weeks of age, had never been cleaned in the vaginal area (between labia majora and labia minora on the two sides). Old vernix in that location will eventually begin to grow unhealthy bacteria and become rather unhygienic. Feces can also get into that location. After several days I do recommend beginning to clean with plain water in the labia area of infant girls.

    • Dawn

      I think I would be just so pleased if people could at least wait until they were at home. That alone would be a significant positive change!

      Thank you so much for your comment and for letting people know an approximate time frame!

    • Roxane

      Wow I find it very strange that parents would be changing a nappy (diaper) and not cleaning the genitals well. Just because they aren’t bathing the full body submerged doesn’t mean those areas stay dirty.
      I, like another poster, am shocked at some of the practices that still go on in America. Here in Australia they don’t let you bathe the baby until at least 24 hours so it has a chance to get its temperature regulation happening.

  9. I agree the bonding time should not be interrupted with bathing. From a cultural stand point and as a midwife of 30 years, for African families and Muslims rinsing the baby happens after breastfeeding, with out a negative impact in breastfeeding.

  10. TrulaDoula

    I completely agree is no submerged bathing until weeks after birth, spot cleaning can be necessary. I would like to point out what wasn’t mentioned in the statistics in the latter part of your article. The babies who began to crawl towards mothers breast and initiate suckling, these babies were from non-medicated births. When the mother is given drugs during labor that are passed to baby, the numbers were DRASTICALLY lower in these scenarios.

    • Dawn

      From the way I read it, it appears as though they looked at both and felt that both were a factor. Here’s the text of the absract’s conclusion just so everyone can see for themselves how it’s divided. I certainly wasn’t trying to hide anything. 😉 “More infants in the contact group than in the separation group showed the correct sucking technique (24/38 vs 7/34). 40 (56%) of the 72 mothers had received pethidine during labour; the infants were also sedated and most of them (25/40) did not suck at all. It is suggested that contact between mother and infant should be uninterrupted during the first hour after birth or until the first breast-feed has been accomplished, and that use of drugs such as pethidine should be restricted.”

      Anyone who’d like to do more research can go here and purchase a copy if they don’t have access: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0140673690925797

      Thanks for your comment!

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  12. I agree with your comments , but my first baby was very strong , and resisted all events to have his vernix washed off from his armpits , we simply couldnt prise our fingers under his arms and had to desist for fear of hurting him, the vernix became infected and had to be treated with antibiotic cream, with my next two babies they were post mature , and there was hardly any vernix to wash off, so no problem . all babies were over 4 .4 kilos.even the early one who was 4.430 grams and a week early.

  13. ashley

    I only have one baby; a hospital birth in the US. No contact with baby for nearly 40 minutes after birth because she wasn’t breathing right. She was bathed and brought to me and latched on perfectly, immediately. If she hadn’t i would’ve had plenty of help. The hospital i was at was clearly pro-breastfeeding. The delivery nurse helped but also I had several lactation consultants come by and check and tons of literature on breastfeeding. I think she was just a natural nurser; doubled her birthweight in 2 weeks. So, I have no doubt it’s probably better to delay the first bath but I take all the rest with a grain of salt. How much does vernix really matter when it comes to bonding with your baby/breastfeeding? I’m not going to beat myself up about it.

    • Melissa

      honestly, who’s asking you to beat yourself up?if we find something has been done wrong to babies for decades you would rather it was kept quiet from other mums so you don’t feel bad? what’s that about? vernix does have proven benefits- if it is there, allow it to do its job, if it’s not, don’t worry.

  14. Alyce Woodburn

    This sounds wonderful, however both my babies were bathed after a couple of hours. I had PPH with both and they were covered with blood. What could I have done in this case?

    • Melissa

      water should have got the blood off but left the oil-based vernix on. you didn’t do anything wrong, whatever happened. this article is about routinely removed vernix, not about circumstances where babies need washing, as in your case. i didn’t know much about vernix first time, but my daughter (whose skin is astonishingly soft- people actually comment on it and she’s 2) had her vernix left and it soaked in over a few days.

  15. Charmaine Campbell

    My babies weren’t washed for a few days, until we did it ourselves. The midwives didn’t want to tire the babies out, when they needed to save energy for their first feeds. We did get the midwife to wash my daughter’s head though as she was covered in meconium and blood. I was still under the spinal block.

  16. Danielle

    I’m just curious as I am a medical technician working on a labor and delivery unit. Our policy here is the baby goes skin to skin with mom as soon as she is delivered to begin bonding and attempt the first breast feed. We get the baby’s vitals every 15 minutes or so for the first hour, the hourly, then q4. We give a sponge bath to the infant around 4 hours of life or later if her temp is stable, over 98 and by then most of the verni is absorbed and the bath is primarily to remove blood/viscera from baby’s hair. Do some hospitals do bath’s initially?

  17. Karlie

    When I had my baby girl 4 months ago she had no vernix at all. Perhaps it had already soaked in as she was overdue. Her head was covered in blood from where I tore and the midwives just wiped it off her face and she was fine until…a tremendous meconium poo happened in the middle of the night going up to her neck and down to her toes. Bath time!

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  20. I attended a birth at the hospital yesterday whereby our HypnoBirthing mom knows the benefits of the vernix. So baby remained with the mother the whole time. I believe bath time is ok just not to use soap and rub the vernix off the skin. Thank you for sharing this article. It helps many parents to understand more about vernix.

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