Before Baby’s First Bath, Learn About These 9 Things

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1). Vernix

Babies are born with a natural skin-protecting substance called vernix. This should not be wiped away from the skin; rather, it can be rubbed into the skin for maximum absorption. This covering, which was laid down in the third trimester of pregnancy, has many important functions: easing transition to life outside the uterus, offering body temperature control, “skin surface adaptation,” plus antioxidant, anti-infective, wound-healing, and moisturizing properties, and it has been shown to be a more effective skin cleanser than commercial soaps. A study published by American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology called Antimocrobial Properties of Amniotic Fluid and Vernix Caseosa are Similar to Those Found in Breast Milk came upon some rather fascinating and groundbreaking findings, some of which unveiled some new information about vernix.

“These immune substances [in vernix] were tested using antimicrobial growth inhibition assays and found to be effective in inhibiting the growth of common perinatal pathogens, including group B. Streptococcus, K. pneumoniae, L. monocytogenes, C. albicans, and E. coli.” “Delaying the bath and keeping the newborn together with his or her mother until breastfeeding is established may prevent some cases of devastating infections caused by these bacteria. The fact that preterm babies tend to have more vernix than babies born at or after 40 weeks might mean that healthy, stable preterm babies derive even greater benefit from staying with their mothers during the immediate newborn period.”

Read more scientific research about vernix here. Various organizations including the WHO recommend leaving a newborn’s vernix intact post-birth: “Ensure warmth by delaying the baby’s first bath to after the first 24 hours.”

Mmmm… donut vernix.

2). Temperature Regulation

Skin-to-skin contact is vital immediately after a normal birth. A newborn needs to be in contact with her mother’s skin as quickly as possible. This regulates body temperature much better than the hospital baby warmer where various procedures are often done. In fact, babies who are bathed too soon are at greater risk for hypothermia. Houston-20121129-00423

3). Mother’s Body Rhythms

A newborn also needs to be near her mother’s heartbeat as soon as possible. “The mother’s body forms the baby’s habitat,” notes Linda Smith in Impact of Birthing Practices on Breastfeeding, “the place where inborn behaviors can unfold normally…” All a baby has known his whole life is his mother — the constant reassurance of her heartbeat, the soundtrack of his existence; the ebb and flow of her blood rushing around him like waves driven in tides by the moon; the warmth of her soft fats around him to rest his head upon; the security of her firm pulsating womb; rocking and swaying to sleep within the gyrating container of future birthing hips; a lullaby of coexistence that shares dreams in the temporary tense and actual cells in the long-term.

A baby continues to feel homesick for his mother’s body, his home, after birth.

“The Womb” by Artist Richard Holland

4). Stress Hormones

By delaying the first bath, stress hormones will be lowered and blood sugar will be stabilized. Why is this important? These stress hormones are shown to be present 20-fold in a newborn than in a resting adult. The aforementioned study determined that the stress surge may be beneficial for the “lung liquid absorption” of normally-birthed babies; however, we know now that continued high stress levels are harmful. Low blood sugar is a red flag for medical caregivers to scramble for formula supplements, which can put quite a hitch in the breastfeeding wagon.

Photo Credit: JoséMa Orsini, via Wikimedia Commons

5). Olfactory Cues

“The [baby’s] senses of smell and touch are especially powerful triggers of infant and maternal behavior,” Linda continues, “because the nerve fibers lead directly to the amygdala, the seat of emotional memory and fear conditioning.  The newborn’s sense of smell is especially acute in the first hours, triggering breast-seeking behaviors and movements.  Washing or bathing the mother or baby removes olfactory cues that support breastfeeding and attachment, and thus should be avoided.”


6). Effect on Breastfeeding

Delaying the first bath for 12 hours has been shown to increase rates of exclusive breastfeeding. Other groundbreaking research suggests that “contact between mother and infant should be uninterrupted during the first hour after birth or until the first breast-feed…” Given the opportunity, newborns in the uninterrupted contact group (no removal from the mother for routine procedures) started independently crawling toward the breast within 20 minutes and nursing within 50 minutes.

“Separating infant and mother at birth, even shortly, for doing routine cares such as neonatal assessment, vitamin K injection and repairing mothers’ episiotomy, could lead to less interaction between mother and infant, decrease mother’s self confidence in successful breastfeeding, decrease the mother’s learning about infant feeding and postpone the stage 2 of lacto-genesis.” – “The effects of post-birth mother-infant skin to skin contact on first breastfeeding” by Talat Khadivzadeh, Aghdas Karimi

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7). Protective Mama Bear Feelings

It might feel unsettling for a mother to watch other people (especially strangers) handle her baby during his bath. The mother is perfectly capable of giving the first bath so long as she is aware of safe bathing practices.

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8). Infection Transmission

Remind all persons who come into contact with your baby to wear gloves, as infection transmission in hospitals is a possibility that you don’t want to become a reality. If you birth at home, wonderful! You are welcoming your child into the exact world in which s/he will be spending all significant hours of his/her day. The germs and bacteria will be familiar, balanced, tolerable. If birthing in a hospital, rooming-in can help minimize possibility of exposure to foreign infectious bodies.


9). Alternative Options

Have you decided to delay the first bath? Make sure your birth team is aware of your wishes and willing to respect them. If rooming-in at a hospital, it’ll be easy to put off the bath — simply decline when requested. If your baby is spending time in the nursery or the NICU, post a sign on baby’s bassinet that reads “Attention Staff: Please do not bathe me.” Take time to look into infant bath product ingredients (shampoos, lotions, creams, powders, wipes, etc).  Some products marketed to baby care do contain toxic ingredients. Many parents opt for water-only baths for the first weeks or months of life, and as needed, “spot-cleaning” areas that become soiled quickest (neck folds, behind the ears, diaper area).


Claimed benefits for the baby:

  • Calming as it induces feeling of return to “home” in the womb
  • Anti-fungal
  • Antiseptic
  • Helps treat cradle cap
  • Helps treat diaper rash
  • Naturally preserves and nourishes newborn skin
  • Increases speed of cord stump healing

Claimed benefits for the mother:

  • Decreases risk of postpartum infection
  • Reduces swelling of the perineum
  • Helps heal hemorrhoids
  • Increases speed of healing for skin tears or Cesarean wound

Doula and birth photographer Sarah Boccolucci provides two postpartum herbal bath recipes here. She advises: “To include your newborn in the bath, make sure you have a helping hand there and the water isn’t too hot or too cold. Support your baby’s head and shoulders and allow them to ‘float’ in the water.” Also, it’s important to keep the cord stump dry until it falls off to prevent infection. For this reason, many people delay the first bath until the cord has fallen off completely. Until then, you can sponge-bathe the baby with plain water in areas that tend to get dirty easiest (neck folds, diaper area). Finally, check out these two videos of perhaps the most incredible, relaxing and gentle experience a newborn can have in a tub: click here and scroll down a few videos to “Thalasso Bain Bebe.”

Traditional flower bath, via unclebigbrown on Flickr