The knee-jerk reaction to seeing a newborn baby covered in a white, creamy film may be alarm, confusion, or even the compulsion to yell, “ew, wash it off!” However, some experts believe delaying that first bath could have unforeseen health benefits that may make you wish your mother had waited.
In the United States, typical post-delivery protocol requires that the newborn immediately be taken away for a medical examination, bathed, then returned to the mother. Washing the infant makes sense — especially given that childbirth is often a messy affair — but that bath removes the aforementioned cottage cheese-like substance, called vernix caseosa.
The Indian Journal of Dermatology
defines vernix caseosa as “a white, creamy, naturally occurring biofilm covering the skin of the fetus during the last trimester of pregnancy.” The lipid-rich substance acts as a natural barrier for the baby before and after birth, easing the transition from being in the womb to being exposed to the air.
According to a study from the Journal of Perinatology, vernix caseosa is unparalleled at protecting a newborn, aiding in heat regulation, immunity, and moisture retention in the skin. Dr. Ian Holzman, the chief of newborn medicine and professor of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Teen Vogue, “The bacteria the baby has on his or her skin are supposed to be there. The vernix protective cover over the skin after birth is supposed to be there … The idea of washing all of that and the good bacteria off doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The experience of being bathed immediately may even be traumatic for some newborns. Not only are they taken away from their mothers — interrupting the bonding process — but the dramatic change in temperature from the womb to the outside world to a bath may be too extreme for an infant to handle. Further, the study from the Journal of Perinatology observed that removing the vernix caseosa significantly lowered the baby’s moisture accumulation rate (MAT) in the skin.
Elodie Dupuy, 32, tells Teen Vogue that she chose not to bathe her newborn daughter for the first six days after giving birth. “They wiped her down with a towel. She looked fine. Her hair wasn’t dirty,” Dupuy insists. “She had what looked like dry lotion between her fingers. You couldn’t tell she hadn’t been cleaned off.”
More and more new mothers are requesting that the doctors and nurses leave the vernix caseosa as is, and short-term research seems to indicate that doing so is beneficial to a newborn’s health. Additional research still needs to be conducted regarding long-term effects of forgoing the post-delivery bath.
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