Your Baby’s First Bath: Why Wait?
When the doctor hands you your new baby for the first time your heart spills over with more love than you’ve ever felt in your life. And as you hold her in your arms and kiss her little cheeks, you realize this tiny person is completely helpless and reliant on you for her every need.
This is the beginning of the most important job of your life. While she’s small, it’s your responsibility to be her voice, and that starts right there in the delivery room – the minute she takes her first breath. After you’ve had a minute to bond with her, the nurses will whisk her off to do an assessment (vitals signs and APGAR score)
After that is complete, there’s a good chance a well-intentioned nurse is going say, “time for baby’s first bath!” It’s not likely to be posed as a decision for you to make – something you can opt-out of or delay. And, if you didn’t know there was a beneficial reason to wait a little longer, you would trust that this is just the way things should go.
You and your baby both instinctively want to be close right from the moment of birth, as this is an important time for you to get to know one another. So, for this reason alone, being separated for your baby’s first bath time seems counterintuitive.
4 Reasons to Delay Your Baby’s First Bath
The reasons for delaying your baby’s first bath go well beyond bonding time though. Studies show bathing your baby too soon after birth can contribute to health complications.1 I recommend waiting at least 24 hours for the first bath, and here are four reasons why.
1. Delaying Your Baby’s First Bath Keeps Her Protected Against Infection
Vernix caseosa is the thick, white, cheese-like substance that covers your baby’s skin when she’s born. This remarkable coating is made up of proteins and skin cells which have a very important purpose both inside and outside of your uterus. The vernix acts as a waterproof barrier to protect your baby’s skin while in the amniotic fluid while in utero as well as acts as a natural moisturizer helping baby’s skin adapt to the lower humidity outside of the uterus.2 No need for baby lotion!
Vernix also has antimicrobial properties that are active against group B. strep, E. coli and other bacterial and fungal infections.3 The hospital is filled with sick people with infections that can be devastating for newborn babies. So, we should take every possible preventative measure against them, including not washing the vernix off too soon after birth.
2. Delaying Your Baby’s First Bath Increases Likelihood of Breastfeeding Success
I cannot emphasize enough the benefits of breastfeeding for your baby. There are thousands of proteins, enzymes and other components naturally contained in breast milk that help strengthen her immune system, build up good bacteria (microbiome) and support healthy organ development.4 You will want to do everything you can to ensure successful breastfeeding.
For various reasons, getting baby to latch on and breastfeed in those early days can be difficult for some moms, and bathing her too soon might contribute to the struggle. Studies show a delayed newborn bath was associated with an increased likelihood of breastfeeding initiation rates. 5 A hospital in one study changed its newborn bathing practice – waiting for 12 hours instead of only 2 hours after birth. They found the odds of breastfeeding initiation were 166% greater after this change!
A baby taken away from the comfort of her mother to be bathed is likely to release stress hormones, and distressed babies will find it harder to breastfeed.6 Having skin-to-skin contact early after birth and being close to your breast is the best way to encourage successful feeding.
3. Waiting Reduces Risk of Low Blood Sugar
Those stress hormones released when a newborn is bathed can also cause her blood sugar to drop. This can make her too sleepy to wake up and breastfeed, causing the blood sugar to drop even more. Low blood glucose at birth, also called neonatal hypoglycemia, has been associated with brain injury and intellectual and developmental disabilities.7
One study found babies who had their first bath delayed until 12 hours after birth had less than a 4% chance of developing neonatal hypoglycemia. Babies whose first baths were not delayed had more than double the risk, with 8.5% suffering from low blood sugar.8
4. Waiting Maintains Baby’s Temperature
The outside world is a lot colder than a newborn baby has been accustomed to during her nine months inside your warm and cozy womb. Staying close to you right after birth will help stabilize your baby’s body temperature. Your chest can actually heat up or cool down based on your baby’s needs.down.9 Taking a newborn away from this natural thermostat right after birth and putting her in bathwater is a risk for hypothermia.10 Even the World Health Organization recognizes this risk and recommends delaying the bath for 24 hours to keep baby warm.11
Being a new mother is both exciting and exhausting. There is a lot going on during your child’s birth – physically in the room, as well as emotionally and mentally. It can be easy to get swept up in the frenzy and not notice as nurses and doctors go through their usual routines. That’s why I recommend spending time well before your due date thinking about your wishes and desires for yourself and your newborn so that you’re prepared when the time comes for your baby’s first bath.
Type it up in a “birth plan” and be sure to print about five or so copies to pack in your hospital bag. Have one for yourself, one for the delivering doctors, one for the head nurse in the delivery room, and one for the nurses in the nursery. You can ask that your birth plan be placed in your baby’s medical chart as well, so that everyone looking at your newborn’s chart will see it. This way you can just relax (as much as possible anyway!) and focus on a safe birth and bonding with your newborn.
When my daughter Elle was born, I chose to delay her first bath by bath 48 hours. Since she was delivered via c-section by her birth mother, she was immediately seeded to ensure she was inoculated with the vaginal microbiome in order to build a strong immune system. Then, the nurses gently wiped of any blood and meconium without bathing her or wiping away the vernix.
Nurses should be aware that a bath has not been given and wear gloves while holding and examining your baby, although you will want to remind them if they do not put any on, since they may not be used to working with babies who have delayed baths. Fortunately, this was not an issue in our case as Elle was with us in our hospital room the entire time except for her exams every 6 hours, during which the nurses wear gloves anyway.
Once Elle did get her first bath, I chose to bring our own soap (Dr. Bronner’s unscented baby soap) because, shockingly, most hospitals use JJ baby soap, which is filled with cancer-causing chemicals.
When you are a new mother, you might feel like everyone else knows better – after all, you’ve never done this before and the doctors and nurses have delivered thousands of babies. It’s up to you, though, to make the best decisions for your baby. Your intuition is often your best guide as a mom, and now there is one thing you know for sure you can do to give your baby a healthy start. On her very first day in this world, you can make an important decision for your baby, as you hold her close and tell them your baby’s first bath can wait.
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