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Newborns aren't Dirty

Why Your Baby Doesn't Need That Bath

By Jillian Christofferson

Whether your baby is dirty is more an issue of semantics rather than science. What is “dirty?" The popular opinion changes dramatically by region, culture, era, and socioeconomic status. Do you mean unacceptably soiled? Do you mean unbecoming? Stinky? Unhealthy? Unsafe? Newborns are none of those things. A more appropriate consideration would be whether something has an unhealthy level of harmful bacteria. 

We know bacteria comes in endless varieties, but sometimes it’s tricky to categorize things we can’t see with the naked eye. Staring at your hands, you can’t often say whether they require antibacterial soap, or just a quick rinse. That’s when we use context clues. Our hands do some pretty dirty jobs. They are regularly exposed to unhealthy and possibly harmful bacteria which is why most people opt for the evidence-backed choice of killing that bacteria several times a day.

The context of newborn hygiene is a bit more niche, but once you have the info it’s similarly straightforward. Babies in utero are kept safe from harmful bacteria, so you only need to track what happens once they leave the womb. Vaginas are protected by healthy bacteria that not only don’t need to be washed off, but greatly benefit the beginning of baby’s new gut microbiome - when given the chance to establish itself. Babies born via cesarean section may not be presented with the same beneficial bacteria, but they are birthed into a sanitary environment that doesn’t require intervention to immediately neutralize anything dangerous. Exposure to their own home bacteria - as well as that of their family members and pets - has been shown to improve babies immune systems and reduce their chances of developing allergies later in life.

Newborns washed in hospitals are cleansed not to prevent illness or remove bacteria that are harmful to baby, but to streamline hospital procedure. Babies are born covered in a myriad of fluids that can seem off putting until you understand their function. The most curious of these is a creamy white substance called vernix. Vernix is a naturally occurring film made of proteins, water, skin cells, and fatty acids which coat a fetus during the last trimester, protecting their sensitive skin. While strange looking, vernix is a miraculous moisturizer and protective barrier to harmful bacteria. The World Health Organization recommends leaving vernix on your newborn for a minimum of 6-24 hours post-birth, and many researchers recommend longer in order to take full advantage of its ability to aid in the adaption of baby’s skin from existing in liquid to air. Removing vernix and other beneficial skin bacteria, often means a greater need for synthetic moisturizers to compensate for resulting skin imbalances. 

Everyone loves a fresh-smelling baby and newborn baths are undeniably cute, but we might all benefit from a new outlook on how we achieve a truly healthy infant. This begins with embracing and understanding the body’s natural ability to care for itself from the womb. Allowing vernix to nourish tender skin and function as a natural antibacterial barrier does far more good than scrubbing it off and replacing it with a foreign substance unable to replicate its benefits. Refusing hospital baths and waiting ideally weeks (but even days) to give baby their first bath has shown positive impacts on baby’s health for years to come. Newborns are not careful eaters, or considerate poopers, but blowouts and spit ups can be taken care of with a warm water rinse or washcloth wipe. Consider bathing less frequently and switching to a detergent-free body wash to encourage the colonization of friendly bacteria while promoting the skin’s natural ability to balance itself. 

About the Author

Jillian Christofferson is a birth worker and educator, craftsperson, and mother of two. Follow her on IG @jillian.christofferson.

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