Delaying your newborn's first bath has become a hot topic in recent years—and for good reason. From reduced risk of infection to better body temperature regulation, the benefits of waiting appear to be numerous. Even the World Health Organization recommends not bathing newborns for the first 24 hours of life. Yet, for some reason, the custom in many hospitals around the U.S. is to clean the baby within the first few hours following their birth. According to a new study, this practice may be making it harder for new moms to breastfeed their infants.
The study published in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing has found that delaying the first bath by 12 hours has been shown to significantly help improve the chances of moms being able to successfully exclusively breastfeed their babies during their hospital stays—which often translates to greater breastfeeding success when they return home.
For the study, 966 pairs of mothers and babies were followed. Almost half of the infants, 448 to be exact, had their baths in the first two hours following birth. The other 548 babies waited at least 12 hours before receiving their bath. While only 59.2 percent of the first group were able to exclusively breastfeed at the hospital (meaning no formula supplementation), those in the second group had a much higher 68.2 percent success rate.
While researchers aren't sure exactly what the connection is, they posit that delaying the bath gives Mom and Baby more valuable skin-to-skin time, which has been known to calm and de-stress both babies and mothers.
Another theory is that the smell of amniotic fluid may be similar to a mother's scent, so having that smell washed off of them so quickly may make it difficult for the newborn to find their mother's breast and latch.
According to lead author Heather Condo DiCioccio, DNP, RNC-MNN, “They’ve been swimming in the amniotic fluid for 38, 39, 40 weeks of their life and the mother’s breast puts out a similar smell as that amniotic fluid. So, the thought is maybe the two smells help that baby actually latch. It makes it easier for the baby to find something comfortable and normal, and that they like.”
And that initial latch is crucial on a breastfeeding journey. “We’re starting to see that the earlier we can get the babies to latch … the better mom’s milk supply will be,” says DiCioccio.
Women who gave birth vaginally also appeared to experience a stronger effect of the delayed bathing than those who had C-sections—perhaps because the babies are immediately placed on their chest following delivery.
Another reason waiting on that first bath may help with nursing is that babies whose baths were delayed also have warmer body temperatures—which could be significant when every ounce of energy counts in those early days. “They weren’t as cold as the babies who were bathed sooner after birth, so they may not have been as tired trying to nurse,” says DiCioccio.
Every hospital currently has their own policy on when to bathe newborns, but hopefully studies like this help make delayed bathing a more everyday practice.