Ten years ago, my first son was born in a birth pool in our dining room. After a few brief moments of holding him and admiring his sweet little face, my midwives whisked him off to be weighed, evaluated and bathed. A little while later, a clean, diapered, handsome little fellow was placed back in my arms.
I didn’t think much about that course of events, because it seemed perfectly normal that a baby would be taken away to be washed and tested right after birth. However, the hours and days after that were rough. I had trouble keeping him awake long enough to latch on and breastfeed. Between the trouble breastfeeding, and my general feeling of being overwhelmed at new motherhood, the first few weeks of his life were fraught with struggle and stress.
Five years later, when my second son was born, I had a very different experience in those first hours postpartum. I gave birth with the same lovely midwives, but their after-birth protocol had changed. Immediately after my baby was born, he was placed right against my skin. After 20 minutes or so of hanging out near my boobs, he found my breast and latched right on.
All of his newborn tests and procedures were done while he was lounging on me, and that is where he was left for many hours, well after the midwives left. It only occurred to me a few hours later that neither he or I had bathed.
I know what you’re thinking: “Ewwww!” Birth can be messy and goopy, for sure. The space around me was definitely cleaned up, and so were certain parts of my body. But that nesting spot on my chest was left as-is. And as for my baby? He wasn’t dirty or bloody or anything, but you could definitely see that smooth, white newborn vernix on him for many hours.
And it’s not just me—several major health organizations advocate delaying the newborn bath.
Even after we gave him his first diaper change, and wiped some of the newborn gunk off of him, we didn’t fully bathe him for a few days.
I ended up having a truly magical postpartum period with him—much easier than it had been the first time. I can’t say the delay of his bath was the only reason for this. But it was part of my midwives’ protocol for a smoother postpartum period, and I truly believe it helped.
And it’s not just me—several major health organizations advocate delaying the newborn bath. The Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) recommends that the newborn bath be delayed by at least 2 to 4 hours after birth. The World Health Organization (WHO) has an even more extreme recommendation, stating that whenever possible, the newborn bath should be delayed for the first 24 hours after birth.
Sure, 24 hours of not bathing may sound pretty extreme, but there are quite a few reasons behind these recommendations, and they are all backed up by evidence-based studies. Here are the main reasons usually cited by doctors and health organizations:
1. Reduced Risk of Infections
It turns out that newborn vernix actually has properties that can protect a newborn from infections. The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study in 2004 explaining this amazing phenomenon. Doctors from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center found that both vernix and amniotic fluid have antimicrobial proteins that work in “inhibiting growth of common perinatal pathogens.” In other words, don’t wash off the vernix! It’s there for a reason, and can keep your baby safe and healthy.
2. Temperature Regulation
Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann, a pediatrician with St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, explains on her website that delaying a baby’s first bath helps regulate their temperature and decreases their chances of hypothermia. “Giving a baby a bath too soon can cause hypothermia,” writes Dr. Berchelmann. “Inside mom, it was about 98.6 degrees, but most babies are born in rooms that are about 70 degrees. In the first few hours after birth, a baby has to use a lot of energy to keep warm.” Dr. Berchelmann goes on to explain that hyperthermia has dangerous consequences, including unhealthy drops in a baby’s blood sugar.
Studies have shown that delaying the newborn bath has a direct effect in increasing breastfeeding initiation after birth. A 2010 study, published in Breastfeeding Medicine, looked at a hospital that had begun delaying the newborn bath from an average of 2 hours to an average of 12 hours. During this delay, babies were allowed immediate and prolonged skin-to-skin time with their moms. The results were staggering: The odds of breastfeeding initiation increased by 166 percent after this change. Those are pretty amazing odds, and a good reason to delay the newborn bath, especially for mothers who intend to breastfeed.
4. Uninterrupted Skin-to-Skin Bonding Time
Unless there's a medical emergency or condition that needs attention right away, babies can be placed skin-to-skin with their moms whether they were born vaginally or via C-section. Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to release oxytocin, a hormone nicknamed “the love hormone” because it promotes bonding. And really—if the newborn baths aren’t strictly necessary in those first hours, why separate a mom and baby for that?
Of course, not all hospitals are on board with delaying the infant bath. And some mothers might find the whole thing entirely too unsavory to participate. Obviously, nothing horrible will happen if you bathe your newborn soon after birth. But it's definitely worth considering these tangible benefits, and asking your doctor or midwife is this is an option for you and your baby.