Breastfeeding

Delaying Baby’s First Bath: Why It’s So Beneficial to Breastfeeding Success

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Nutritionist, Herbalist, GAPS Practitioner, & Board Certified Lactation Consultant. 
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I have to admit. I kind of have a love-hate relationship when it comes to bathing my kids these days.

Now that they’re older I feel like it’s a constant fight getting them into the tub (or shower) which is then followed by a fight to get them out. I don’t know if any of you mamas with older kids can relate, but things are so different from those early days when bath time was just so ridiculously adorable.

Don’t get me wrong though. I absolutely believe that baths are wonderfully therapeutic and can be amazing tools to use for ourselves and our children besides just getting clean.

In fact, after a long stressful day — yes, kids have these too — my first “go-to” is always to draw a nice warm bath with some Epsom salts or other therapeutic element.

It’s amazing how this one simple act can so quickly shift a mood.

And this isn’t something I only use with my own kids.

I also use therapeutic bathing as a healing protocol with clients both as a GAPS™ Practitioner and lactation consultant as well.

Used the right way at the right time, baths are AH-mazing!

But what happens when not used at the right time?

Can bathing your baby too early really pose a health risk and even negatively affect breastfeeding success?

WHY YOU SHOULD DELAY BABY’S FIRST BATH

More than anything else, it’s important to remember that babies are not born dirty.

Say what?!?!

So why not ditch the bath on baby’s birth-day anyway?

Now if you’re thinking, yeah right! You’re crazy! Aren’t babies born covered in blood, fluids and all other kinds of goop?

Well…you’re not entirely incorrect.

But before we start jumping to conclusions and reaching for the priority sign-up sheet for baby’s first bath — by the way, that’s actually not really a thing 😉 — let’s break down what exactly “all that goop” is and why it’s so beneficial.

WHAT IS VERNIX CASEOSA & WHY IS IT SO BENEFICIAL FOR BABY?

Vernix caseosa (also just referred to as vernix) is a white, waxy, cheese-like substance coating a newborn baby’s skin that is composed of lipids, amino acids, water, and sebum — the waxy, oily matter that gives us oily skin, hair, and even ear wax. (source, source)

This uber important substance has numerous benefits for baby. According to research published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, vernix contains antimicrobial and anti-infective properties that are active against many different types of bacteria, viruses and fungi including E. coli, group B strep, Candida albicans, and Staph aureus just to name a few. (source, source)

Sounds like some pretty powerful stuff!

Especially when you consider all the common hospital-acquired illnesses and infections lurking around.

Now, this isn’t to scare you. But rather to inform you.

According to the World Health Organization, among one of the most vulnerable populations who fall in the high-risk category for contacting one of these hospital-based “bugs” are — you guessed it — newborns!

Luckily though, breastfeeding does offer infants an anti-viral punch, which is another reason why it’s so important to get off to the best start possible and delay that first bath.

HOW DOES DELAYING BABY’S FIRST BATH HELP WITH BREASTFEEDING?

It’s not so much that delaying baby’s first bath helps with breastfeeding as it is that giving baby a bath too early actually hinders the normal process of early breastfeeding.

Although bathing a newborn right after birth has been the standard of practice for most hospitals over several decades, as it turns out, this tradition has negatively impacted the overall rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration.

Why, you ask?

While several minor factors might play a role, the two biggest culprits are due to hypothermia (low body temp) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

You see, it’s sort of a cause and effect issue that can quickly start a downward spiral.

Let me paint a picture of what I’m talking about.

Baby is given a bath soon after birth. Following this bath, baby is cold and has a difficult time regulating his/her temperature. Then, due to this extra stress placed on baby, you find yourself in a situation where your infant’s blood sugar levels become unstable and/or your baby is simply too sleepy to eat.

Once either one of these scenarios presets itself, hospital policy typically dictates — and sometimes for a good reason — that baby be supplemented with formula. In my experience working within the hospital system, these infants are then, more often than not, given more formula than they actually need.

What happens then?

At this point baby is full and oftentimes even more sleepy and not particularly motivated to feed at the breast. Of course this means that mom’s breasts are not being adequately stimulated and thus, she might find herself in a situation where she experiences a delay in her milk increasing in volume.

This is generally cause for concern because after the first 24-hours of life, baby tends to become more alert and definitely more hungry. Suddenly you now have a situation where baby isn’t satisfied and/or getting enough milk from breastfeeding alone and is quite possibly losing more weight than he/she should be — and what happens then?

You guessed it…more supplementation!

Before you know it — mom is struggling to keep up with baby’s demand, baby never seems truly satisfied, nipple/flow preference has perhaps set in, and baby continues to be offered more and more bottles in order to compensate for what’s going on.

And thus the never-ending supplementation cycle begins.

So what can be done instead to better support breastfeeding initiation?

Skip the bath!

Immediately following birth, baby should ideally be brought to moms chest as soon as possible and then stay there as long as possible. This allows for uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby in their natural habitat which has numerous benefits such as:

  • Better initiation of breastfeeding
  • Likeliness of better latch
  • Stabilization of body temperature
  • Regulation of blood sugar
  • Improvement in heart & lung function
  • Greater transfer of good bacteria
  • Reduced crying & pain
  • Better communication for feedings
  • Increased rates of exclusive breastfeeding
  • and more!

You see, skin-to-skin contact is such a powerful tool to best support successful breastfeeding outcomes and should be considered the standard of care.

OKAY…BUT HOW LONG SHOULD YOU DELAY THE BATH?

While early initiatives first aimed to delay baby’s bath for eight hours and then up to twelve — more recent, innovative studies such as the one published here by the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing (JOGNN) suggest delaying newborn bathing for at least 24 hours.

The reasoning behind this is these studies show that:

“delay in bathing provides skin protection and allows for absorption of vital nutrients from vernix, which lead to improved exclusive-breastfeeding rates and decreased incidence of hypoglycemia and hypothermia.”

Sounds like a pretty compelling argument to me.

As a lactation consultant, I too, would strongly encourage new parents to follow this recommendation AND encourage mom to get baby to breast as much as possible within those first 24 hours.

More than likely, baby will be very sleepy for the first 24 hours, but by waking baby and encouraging frequent feedings during this time, you will better set yourself (and your baby) up for long-term breastfeeding success!

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HOLISTIC NUTRITIONIST, LACTATION CONSULTANT, HERBALIST, GAPS™ PRACTITIONER, DOULA, MAMA. 

I'm Rebecca Burditt.

I'm a passionate advocate for maternal & child health who has worked with thousands of families over the years promoting optimal wellness & how to holistically support their WHOLE journey. But, mostly I'm just a mama (who has actually birthed & breastfed five babies of my own — including triplets!)

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