If you are like most moms, you have been anxiously waiting for the past 9 months to see your new baby on delivery day. It is a breathtaking moment that can never be replaced. After you undergo several hours or more of painful delivery, you finally get a chance to meet your baby for the first time. Then, within the next hour, a nurse takes your baby from your arms, telling you that it is time for your baby’s bath. Protocol at many hospitals is to bathe babies immediately after birth to protect healthcare workers from coming into contact with fluids from delivery that could potentially transmit a disease. In addition, delivery is a messy process and moms usually want to see their babies cleaned from the film that surrounds their newborn. However, this film is actually beneficial to your baby and bathing your newborn immediately after birth can be dangerous.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends delaying bathing until 24 hours after birth. If cultural reasons make this recommendation impossible, then guidelines suggest delaying bathing until at least 6 hours after birth. Babies who are bathed immediately after birth are at risk for developing hypothermia, or dangerously low body temperature. Your baby has been living in the warmth of your womb (about 98.6°F ) for 9 months. After birth, your baby is thrust into the new world of the hospital room, which is around 70°F. Your baby continually loses heat for every second of exposure to this outside environment. If your baby is bathed during this time, he or she will lose heat faster, which could result in hypothermia. Additionally, bathing often leads to stress and crying, which can cause your baby’s blood sugar to drop. Low blood sugar can make your baby sleepy and prevent him or her from waking to breastfeed. In severe cases, low blood sugar can lead to brain injury.
The first moments after birth should be reserved for moms to spend time with their newborns. Reserving uninterrupted time for mom and baby promotes bonding, keeps your baby warm, encourages breastfeeding, and can lower the risk of infection. Immediately after delivery, newborns should be thoroughly dried, and the mom should give her baby direct skin-to-skin contact. Skin-to-skin contact is important for bonding time between a mom and her new baby. It improves the baby’s attachment and affection to the mom, reduces crying time, and keeps your baby warm. Babies should also be covered with a blanket and bonnet to stop heat loss.
The benefits of skin-to-skin contact and delayed bathing go beyond providing your baby with warmth. Skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth encourages sustained breastfeeding and can help your baby’s immune system develop. Studies have shown that allowing a mom and her baby at least one hour of uninterrupted bonding time after birth encourages the baby to successfully start breastfeeding and prolongs the total length of time (in months) that babies breastfeed. [Skin-to-skin contact after birth can also help your baby’s immune system develop by allowing bacteria from the mom’s skin to migrate onto the baby’s skin. There are beneficial bacteria typically residing on your skin, called normal flora, which provide protection from harmful bacteria that can cause infections. Your baby is born without any normal flora and will benefit from skin contact with the mom.
Bathing your newborn shortly after birth also washes off a layer of film that protects your baby. After delivery, your baby is covered with a white creamy film, called the vernix caseosa. It is natural to want to wash this off your baby’s skin so that he or she looks and feels clean. However, the vernix is beneficial to your baby’s health, and the WHO recommends that it should not be removed. The vernix is a coating that surrounds your baby while in the womb and helps skin development. During birth, it acts as an antibacterial layer that protects your baby as he or she travels through the vaginal canal. The vernix also protects your baby from bacteria after birth, provides an insulated layer to keep your baby warm, and can help moisturize and hydrate your baby’s skin. Additionally, this film contains vitamin E and is thought to have antioxidant properties that may protect your baby after birth.
Many hospitals in the U.S. have recently adopted the delayed bathing protocol, but there are still some hospitals that bathe newborns immediately. The good news is, you can request to delay your baby’s bath. If you and your doctor decide that you want delayed bathing for your baby, make sure to include this request in your birth plan.