When babies are born, they're covered in a cheesy looking film that screams, "Clean me!" However, just like there are important procedures to consider in those initial hours of their birth, it's important to hold off on giving them their first bath for a slew of reasons that primarily benefit their health.
In a report from the World Health Organization, researchers suggest a set-forth protocol for delaying the bath of a newborn until at least 24 hours after birth to help boost your newborn's health. Some hospitals have an immediate need to clean your baby, but others let parents decide on whether to bathe your baby and who is the one to do it.
Though she doesn't see any difference in patients who bathe their infant between six hours or 24 hours of life, Dr. Dyan Hes of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City warns if you choose not to bathe your infant, be sure to place a large sign on your baby's bassinette.
"Unless a baby is in the NICU, most pediatricians do not wear gloves to examine a newborn," she says. "The physician would then be put at risk to come in contact with all the bacteria from the mother's womb [or] vaginal canal."
To help you make the best decision for your baby, Hes shares a few reasons why you should delay your baby's first official bath.
Helps lock moisture in
Numerous studies and reports have shown babies are more likely to be exposed to bacteria like staphylococci, clostridium difficile or E. coli in hospitals, which can cause complications like pneumonia, meningitis or staph infections. But in case you didn't know and are looking to delay their first bath, your baby is born with a natural, antibacterial cream-like substance on their skin that has been proven to protect them against germs.
Known as the "vernix caseosa," Hes says this substance is composed of water, sebaceous secretions, detached fetal coenocytes, and lipids.
"This lipid component serves as a natural type of waterproofing," she says. "Lipids are fatty substances [and] they moisturize the skin."
Can reduce infant stress
Those hours following birth are a huge adjustment to your baby. Between learning to breathe and keeping warm, your infant has to learn how to conserve his or her energy as the placenta is no longer a source of nourishment — and this can be stressful. Imagine being separated from your baby so a nurse can bathe them? Not only does this trigger further stress and crying, but this upset also promotes the release of stress hormones that cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate.
While a delay in bathing won't stabilize sugars, Hes stresses the importance of keeping an infant close to their mother so they feel more at peace.
"The quick placement of the newborn infant onto the mother's breast [will] stabilize the sugar levels," she says. "Nursing after birth is encouraged to prevent hypoglycemia."
Improved breastfeeding experience
In a report by WHO, researchers found newborns who experienced skin-to-skin contact promptly after birth cried less than babies kept in a cot next to their mothers. Not only does this reduce infant stress, but the study also discloses uninterrupted time together promotes a better breastfeeding experience.
The Journal of Perinatal Education suggests babies who breastfeed in the first hour of life or even in the first 30 minutes have an easier time learning to latch. This is due in part to the baby living in the mother's uterus for nine months, constantly and rhythmically sucking in amniotic fluid and swallowing — a natural instinct they learned in the womb.
Though the breastfeeding experience can be very stressful on a tired mother, Hes says a delay in the bath allows time for the mother and baby to bond.
Stabilizes temperature control
A study from the medical journal Acta Paediatrica suggests giving a baby a bath too soon can cause hypothermia. Despite the use of warm water and secondary traumatic stress care for thermal protection, it can create a major discomfort and distress for the newborn.
Since the womb was an estimated 98 degrees, most babies are born in rooms that are 20 degrees less, which can cause distress in body temperature. Hes says a delay in bathing not only prevents a newborn from becoming cold from the water and having hypothermia, but lowers their risk of experiencing a temperature dysregulation.
Improved maternal-infant bonding
New babies need a lot of skin-to-skin snuggling time, so any chance you get to spend with them is beneficial to their overall wellbeing. Hes says that by delaying their first bath, the mother and infant are given more time to bond.
"Studies have shown that delaying the first bath to six hours or more of life, greatly increases the likelihood of successful breastfeeding," she says.
As long as your baby does not require help with breathing or immediate resuscitation, their mother should hold them for hours as this will create a more calming effect for the newborn.
Will a delay reduce the risk of infection?
While it might not reduce the risk of infection, Hes says some parents choose to delay their newborn's first bath for about six to 24 hours.
"These families believe the immunological properties found in the vernix will boost the infant's immune system," she says. "However, children bathed with clean water within the first few hours of life do not get more infections."
Hes adds that if your baby is pre-term, the neonatologist may choose to bathe the baby to decrease risk of carriage of gram positive and gram negative bacteria. That said, she says it's important to discuss these options with your pediatrician.