The Benefits of Delayed Bathing for Newborns
Including Thomas, my little one, I’ve helped hundreds of babies bath. I started in nursing school, then working in labour and delivery, and then working with new parents in the Dominican. One of the things I learned when I was pregnant was the benefits of delayed bathing. I had experience with parents choosing to delay baby’s bath but had never dug into why. Well, now it’s something that I recommend to everyone I work with. Here’s why.
Every culture approaches bathing differently. In some cultures, babies are bathed almost immediately, but there are huge benefits to delaying a bath.
Babies are not born dirty, they are covered in something called vernix, a thick cottage-cheesy like substance, designed to protect their skin and keep them healthy. This vernix helps both inside and outside the womb by:
Coating the internal digestive system with a prebiotic layer to protect against infections (this happens in the womb as they swallow amniotic fluid).
Creating a protective barrier on the skin when born to reduce infections.
The skin is the largest organ in the body and is very susceptible in newborns. Leaving this protective barrier helps to prevent introduction of bacteria when babies are handled by anyone other than their parents. Also important to note: until baby is bathed, gloves should be worn by anyone handling the baby outside of the immediate family. The mothers microbiome (ie: bacteria from her body that boosts baby’s immunity) are present on baby’s skin after a vaginal delivery. Hospital staff should be wearing gloves to avoid any cross-contamination from other infants.
Regulating baby’s temperature and combating cold stress, which basically just means that the baby’s temperature drops.
It can cause many issues for a newborn. It’s something that happens very easily to newborns. Newborns have very thin skin with very little capacity to retain heat. When baby is wet, they lose heat quicker. So they are dried off immediately after birth. The vernix helps to hold in some of the heat that their skin cannot.
Stabilizing baby’s blood sugar levels.
This one is fascinating and I could go into huge detail here, but to simplify it all, cold stress, separation from mom, early bathing, and other stressors can increase a hormone in their body called Cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone in the body and any increase in crying or stressors can cause the baby’s blood sugar levels to drop. When this happens, it can make the baby drowsy which causes issues with feeding and just perpetuates the issue with decreasing blood sugar.
Increasing success if breastfeeding.
When babies are born without intervention or issues, their first instincts are to breastfeed. Studies have found that uninterrupted skin to skin contact in the early hours have accounted for greater chances of breastfeeding passed the 6 week mark.
By introducing a bath to baby during this time, you are not only separating mom and baby but you are reducing bonding, increasing stress, decreasing blood sugar supplies, and increasing the chances of needing formula.
Pro-tip: the smell of the vernix on the baby helps mom to increase her milk supply while smelling it – newborn baby smell really is intoxicating for a reason!
Even with a belief system that asks babies to be bathed immediately, the benefits of waiting a minimum of 6 hours is tremendous. If at all possible, avoid bathing your baby for 24 hours or more.
A common question I am asked about this is “How long is too long?” – there isn’t a wrong answer here and many people wait upwards of a week.