Labor and delivery is a time of mixed emotions. You may be scared and nervous. Some women describe birth as the worst imaginable pain. But rest assured, those feelings will be forgotten the moment you lay eyes on your newborn.
The minutes after the birth of a baby can seem like a blur. Mothers and babies enjoy a little cuddle time and skin-to-skin contact, but it isn’t long before a nurse scoops away newborns to check their weight, body temperature, and the circumference of their head.
It's also not uncommon for newborns to be bathed soon after birth, often within the first two hours. A bath removes amniotic fluid and blood from your baby’s skin, so you may not think twice about your baby receiving its first bath. But there may be benefits to delaying the first bath.
Bathing doesn't only remove the aforementioned fluids from your newborn’s skin, it also removes the vernix caseosa, which is a white substance found on your baby’s skin.
What is the vernix caseosa?
The vernix caseosa is a protective layer on your baby’s skin. It appears as a white, cheese-like substance. This coating develops on the baby’s skin while in the womb. Traces of the substance may appear on skin after birth. You may wonder, what’s the purpose of this coating?
To understand the role of the vernix caseosa, think of how your skin responds to too much water exposure. After swimming or taking a bath, it doesn’t take long for your fingers and skin to develop wrinkles. Fluids have the same effect on babies-to-be.
Remember, your baby swims in amniotic fluid for 40 weeks. It’s this coating that protects an unborn baby’s skin from the fluid. Without this protection, a baby’s skin would chap or wrinkle in the womb.
The vernix caseosa contributes to babies having soft skin after birth. It also protects your baby’s skin from infections while in the womb.
The amount of vernix caseosa on your baby’s skin decreases the closer you get to your due date. It’s normal for full-term babies to have the substance on their skin.
But if you deliver past your due date, your baby may have less of the coating. Premature babies tend to have more vernix caseosa than full-term babies.
What are the benefits of the vernix caseosa?
The benefits of the vernix caseosa aren’t limited to pregnancy: This coating also benefits your baby during and after the delivery. Regardless of how little or how much of the substance remains on your baby’s skin after birth, consider keeping the vernix caseosa on your newborn’s skin for as long as possible. This means delaying the first bath.
Benefits of this natural protectant include the following.
It has antimicrobial properties
Newborns have a fragile immune system, which means they’re more susceptible to illnesses. Breast-feeding helps boost a baby’s immune system, but this isn’t the only option. The vernix caseosa can also protect a newborn from infections after birth. This is because the coating contains antioxidants, as well as anti-infection and anti-inflammatory properties.
Lubrication through the birth canal
The vernix caseosa doesn't only provide a protective barrier for fluids in the womb. It can also reduce friction as your baby passes through the birth canal during delivery.
Helps regulate a baby’s body temperature
During pregnancy, your body plays a vital role in regulating your baby’s body temperature. It takes time for a baby to regulate its own body temperature after birth. This is why it's important to wrap a baby in blankets and maintain a comfortable room temperature. Keeping the vernix caseosa on baby’s skin for as long as possible may naturally stabilize their body temperature.
Moisturizes your baby’s skin
The vernix caseosa also contributes to softer, smoother skin at birth and after delivery. This cheese-like substance is a natural moisturizer for babies, protecting their skin from dryness and cracking.
Should you delay your baby’s first bath?
Once you understand the role of the vernix caseosa, you can choose to delay your baby’s first bath to maximize the health benefits. The length of time you choose to delay the bath is up to you.
Some mothers don’t give babies their first bath for several days or up to a week after birth. But you don't have to wait this long. Even if you only delay the first bath for 24 to 48 hours, your newborn benefits.
Request that the nurse uses a soft cloth to gently remove any traces of blood and amniotic fluid from the newborn’s skin. But you have the option to tell hospital staff that you don’t want them to remove excess amounts of the vernix caseosa. Over the next one to two days, gently massage the coating into your baby’s skin.
It’s true that babies are born covered in fluid and blood. But babies aren't born dirty, so there's no harm in delaying the first bath. The exception is if your baby is covered in meconium, which is stool.
Typically, an unborn baby’s stool stays in the intestines during pregnancy. But sometimes, feces seep into the amniotic fluid during labor. Bathing quickly after birth reduces the risk of babies ingesting the meconium, which can lead to respiratory problems.
Nurses separate newborns from their mothers after delivery for testing and a bath. Testing is necessary, but a bath isn’t. You can decide when and where to bathe your baby for the first time, so don't be shy about speaking up. Make your wishes known to your doctor and the hospital staff.