When your baby is born, you’ll probably notice that their skin is covered in a white substance that looks somewhat like cheese. This substance is called vernix caseosa.
In recent years, people have debated whether you should wash away or rub the vernix caseosa into the baby’s skin.
Our medical team will weigh in on this subject and provide you with some interesting facts. We’ll discuss the purpose and benefits of vernix caseosa and offer some tips to help you decide what to do after your baby is born.
What is Vernix Caseosa?
Vernix caseosa is usually referred to as vernix. You may also have heard it called “baby frosting” or “birthday frosting.” Vernix is Latin for varnish, and caseosa is Latin for cheese (1).
You have probably seen pictures of newborns with this substance still covering their skin. Vernix is a waxy and cheesy-looking white substance that coats the skin.
The coating of vernix develops on your baby when they are in the womb. It serves as a protective layer. Your baby spends all of their time in the womb surrounded by amniotic fluid. Without vernix, exposure to constant fluids would cause your baby to develop wrinkled or chapped skin while in the womb.
Vernix is composed of skin cells and sebum, the skin’s oil.
Do Babies Have the Same Amount?
The earlier you give birth, the more likely you are to see a decent amount of vernix on your baby. As you get closer to your due date or even pass it, the amount of vernix on your baby will decrease. The amniotic fluid begins to absorb the vernix when your baby reaches full-term (2).
Benefits of Vernix Caseosa
Vernix plays an integral role for both you and your baby.
Its benefits aren’t limited to the time spent inside the womb; it also supports many other aspects.
1. Antimicrobial Properties
When your baby swallows vernix in utero through the amniotic fluid, it benefits their gut balance. The proteins within it consist of more than 20 percent of amino acids. Your baby’s developing gut cells require these elements.
Inside your womb, the vernix protects your baby’s skin from the amniotic fluid. It prevents damage while preserving the required moisture levels.
Vernix acts as an antimicrobial shield, protecting your baby from any bacteria in your genital tract during delivery. It also facilitates your baby’s passage through the birth canal.
A newborn has a fragile immune system, so their chances of contracting an illness are much higher. Vernix caseosa contains anti-infection and anti-inflammatory properties that can protect your newborn from infection after birth.
Not only does the vernix benefit your baby, but it makes things a little easier on you. It acts as a lubricant to help your baby smoothly glide through the birth canal and into the world.
3. Body Temperature Regulation
Your baby has relied on your body to help regulate their body temperature. It takes time after birth for their little body to regulate temperature. The vernix serves as an extra layer of insulation that helps naturally stabilize your newborn’s temperature after delivery. Remember that outside temperatures are often much lower than your baby’s former warm environment (3).
4. Natural Moisturizer
Everyone loves a newborn’s super soft skin. Did you know that vernix plays a large part in that skin? It acts as a moisturizer, protecting the baby’s skin from cracking and drying before and after delivery.
5. Muffles Sound
When your baby is in the womb, the vernix in their ears muffles sounds from the outside world. Your baby can still hear you, but the vernix ensures that they are less likely to be startled.
6. Reduces Stress
After spending nine months in a cozy environment, entering the outside world can be terrifying. With the new smells, sounds, and feelings, taking your newborn away from the comfort of your skin can cause unnecessary stress.
Stress can quickly cause your baby’s heart rate to increase, and breathing could become irregular. Crying turns into agitation, and your baby’s body may respond by lowering their blood sugar.
Exposing infants to excessive stress may cause behavioral problems later in life. It can also lead to stress-related health issues in the future. Some studies suggest it may even interfere with brain growth and, in extreme cases, shorten the lifespan (4).
Fortunately, you can help prevent this by keeping your newborn close to you for at least the first few hours. Being a nurturing parent can build up stress resilience in your baby from the onset, which will last through adulthood.
When keeping your baby close, speaking or singing softly, or stroking their head, you release a variety of chemicals. These include oxytocin, also called the “love hormone,” and endogenous opioids, which give natural pain relief (5).
As the brain releases these chemicals, it shuts down the production of stress hormones. In turn, you limit the physiological wear and tear stress can cause.
Vernix has numerous other benefits, including some we don’t fully understand yet. Many believe the antimicrobial properties are the most beneficial aspects of the vernix.
Interesting Facts about Vernix Caseosa
Aside from its benefits, there are some other interesting facts about the vernix most people don’t know.
- Baby smell: That newborn baby smell everyone craves is partly due to the vernix caseosa. So, if you leave the vernix in place, you will probably experience those sweet smells a little longer!
- Only human: Vernix is only present in humans. No other babies of any kind are born with this special cheesy coating.
- Composition: Vernix is made of 80 percent water. The rest consists of fats and proteins (6).
- Vernix color: The color of the vernix can tell a story about things that occurred inside the womb. Different colors could point to fetal distress or the presence of other diseases.
- It lingers: If you decide to give your baby their first bath relatively soon after delivery, you may be surprised to find traces of the vernix. Vernix caseosa can linger in folds of the body, especially the vaginal area and behind the legs. If you come across any excess vernix, you can simply rub it in or wash it off.
- Not always present: While all human babies are usually in contact with vernix at some point, not all are born with it. If a baby is born early — before 27 weeks — they will likely have a lot more vernix. Babies born after their due date may have little to no vernix present on their body. This doesn’t mean they never had it — it has just already been absorbed.
Should I Wash or Rub Vernix Caseosa?
There are many conflicting opinions about whether you should bathe your baby after delivery or rub the vernix into their skin. Vernix does not pose any threat to your baby, but most hospitals opt to remove it via a bath.
It seems as if many hospitals will put bathing your baby at the top of their priority list, along with measuring their height and weight. You could understand why someone would want to wash the unsightly substance off your baby’s skin, but why remove it if it is beneficial?
Is Your Baby Born Dirty?
Your baby isn’t necessarily born dirty, but their skin will carry traces of blood, amniotic fluid, and vernix. It isn’t unusual that some parents want this washed off their baby.
But because your baby isn’t technically dirty, you don’t have to send them off for that first bath so quickly.
The only time a bath is a must is if your baby is born with meconium on their skin. Meconium is the first stool your baby produces, and sometimes it is released within the womb. This could pose risks to your baby, so you must thoroughly wash them if meconium is present.
Cleaning a Baby Without a Bath
As mentioned above, your baby will have traces of blood and amniotic fluid on their skin. You can ask the nurse to gently use a washcloth and wash off these fluids while keeping most of the vernix untouched.
As long as excess amounts of vernix aren’t removed, your baby will still reap the benefits. A simple towel rub will suffice if you want to avoid using water.
When To Give a Bath?
If you decide to postpone your baby’s first bath, you may wonder how long is too long. Most mothers will bathe their baby after 24 hours, and some wait for a week.
It comes down to your personal preference. Your baby will reap most of the benefits of the vernix within that 24-hour window.
If you choose to leave the vernix untouched, you should gently massage it into your baby’s skin.
Do I Have a Choice?
Most hospitals will not ask you about whether you want them to bathe your baby. It is almost a default reaction for a hospital to assume you want them to do so.
Your Baby, Your Choice
In some hospitals, the first bath is conducted as more of a learning experience for parents rather than for hygienic reasons. If you want to learn how to bathe your baby, but you want your baby to keep the vernix, you still have options.
Your nurse can walk you through a bath routine without actually bathing your baby. Bathing a wiggling newborn can be intimidating, so many first-time moms appreciate this lesson.
When you get home from the hospital, wait until the umbilical cord stump is off before giving your baby regular baths. Until then, a “top and tail” sponge bath is more than enough.
Why Do Parents Feel Pressured?
Most parents want their baby to be as picture-perfect as possible, or they want to go along with the norm. Just because your wishes for your baby go against the norm, it does not make you wrong.
The vernix is a substance that provides natural benefits for your baby. That is the best possible kind you can offer. You aren’t doing your baby any favors by removing the vernix — you are doing a favor by leaving it on.
No, the presence of vernix is not attractive, but it benefits your baby. The vernix is only temporary; you can eventually wash it away. Don’t let other people’s judgments stop you from following through with what you want for your child.
If you want to have your baby washed, that is your preference. Don’t feel pressured to not bathe your baby just because of the opinions of others.
Can Vernix Help With Nursing?
In most hospitals, if you decide to have the staff bathe your baby, it will likely occur before you even get a chance to try that first feeding.
Those first moments with mother and baby are extra special. Not only are you meeting your little one for the first time, but you are their sense of comfort in this new and unfamiliar world.
Your baby will be most content with you, so taking them away for a bath can be extremely startling.
If you choose to skip the bath, you can engage in much more skin-to-skin contact. This kind of contact alone possesses numerous benefits for your baby.
Many new mothers (about 92.6 percent) begin to breastfeed within the first hour of their baby’s life. However, only 26.6 percent actually make skin-to-skin contact (7).
This intimate contact after birth provides sensory stimulation and helps your newborn retain their body temperature. It may help regulate your baby’s breathing and motivate them to move.
Most babies who partake in skin-to-skin contact are known to latch on for breastfeeding much easier. So, by delaying the bath and engaging in skin-to-skin contact, you are essentially promoting your chances of successful breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding becomes more successful with skin-to-skin contact because the baby does not experience increased stress from being taken away from the mom to bathe. High stress levels can make your baby much more distressed and more likely to refuse to latch.
The Bottom Line
Vernix caseosa benefits your baby in the womb and after delivery. The white waxy substance is most well known for its protective qualities and antimicrobial properties.
By leaving the vernix on your baby, you are helping your baby regulate their body temperature, moisturize their skin, and prevent infections. You are also indirectly promoting skin-to-skin contact and successful latching when breastfeeding.
Vernix does not pose any risk to your baby unless meconium is present within it. If something does not harm your baby but only benefits them — why wouldn’t you leave it on the skin?
At the end of the day, whether you wash or rub the vernix caseosa is a personal preference. Your baby will be just fine either way, and you should make the decision that will make you the most comfortable.