Thursday Tip: How delaying the first bath helps with breastfeeding

Standard practice in the recent history of birthing has been for newborns to be bathed within the first hour or two after birth but this may not be best for baby.

A 2010 study at the Boston University Medical Center showed a 166% increased rate of breastfeeding initiation in the hospital and a 39% increased rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the hospital when the first bath was delayed to approximately the 12th hour after birth.

Early baths separate baby from mum at a time when he should be skin-to-skin on his mother’s chest. Skin-to-skin contact for at least the first hour after birth helps baby stabilize her breathing and body temperature. A mother’s chest has the amazing ability to heat up or cool down in response to baby’s temperature and can help baby maintain the correct temperature. Mother’s inhalation and exhalation with baby reclining on her chest helps baby to organize this new skill. Skin-to-skin contact also gives baby easy access to the breast allowing baby to initiate breastfeeding when he is ready, generally within the first hour after birth. (If mum is not able to hold the baby skin-to-skin in the first hour or two after birth a partner can do this until mum is able to take over)

Being born is stressful for baby and being separated from mum right after birth can increase that stress. A baby who is taken away from mum to be bathed shortly after birth is likely to release stress hormones which cause the heart rate and blood pressure to rise and blood sugar levels to fall. A distressed baby will find it harder to initiate breastfeeding.

Vernix Caseosa, the white creamy substance found on baby’s skin at birth, provided “waterproofing” while baby was inside you. This property also appears to have a role in helping baby’s skin adapt from the high humidity environment of the uterus to the much low humidity levels found in the outside world.

Even more important, studies suggest that vernix contains antimicrobial peptides which have a direct role in defending the baby against bacteria until he starts to receive immunity from antibodies through your breastmilk. The vernix, also acts as a mechanical barrier which helps protects baby from infection.

A multiple-site national study on vernix conducted by the National Association of Neonatal Nursing (NANN) and the Association of Women's Health Obstetrical and Neonatal Nursing (AWHONN) 1998 concluded with a consensus statement based on the results of the study. The statement directed health professionals to some major changes in thinking: “removal of all vernix is not necessary for hygienic reasons” and “vernix may provide antibacterial promotion and wound healing”. The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends leaving vernix intact on the skin surface after birth.

Talk to your birthing team about delaying baby's first bath as one of the steps you take to get breastfeeding off to a great start. If you have any questions about preparing to breastfeed or about your breastfeeding experience call a La Leche League Leader. You can find your nearest Leader or Group by clicking Here

Some additional links:

Unraveling the mystery of vernix caseosa

Rub it in: Making the Case for the benefits of Vernix Caseosa

To encourage, promote and provide breastfeeding, chest feeding and human milk feeding support and educational opportunities as an important contribution to the health of children, families and society