What is vernix caseosa, and what purpose does it have for my baby? How do I know whether I should wash or rub it?
As a first-time parent, there is a high probability you’re probably drawing blanks when you hear the term vernix caseosa. That’s perfectly acceptable, but you probably know what it is, just not by its scientific name.
As you’ll learn, there is a debate on whether you should wash or rub vernix caseosa. For you to make an educated judgment call on this decision, you should understand the purpose and benefits associated with the vernix caseosa.
What Is Vernix Caseosa?
Vernix caseosa is also referred to as vernix. It is a substance you will notice covering a newborn baby after birth.
You have probably seen pictures of newborns with this substance still covering their skin. The vernix is a waxy and cheesy-looking white substance that coats the skin.
The coating of vernix develops on your baby when he or she is in the womb. It serves as a protective layer. Your baby spends all of her time in the womb surrounded by amniotic fluid.
The exposure to constant fluids would cause your baby to develop wrinkled or chapped skin while in the womb.
Vernix is composed of sebum, the oil of the skin, and cells that have come off of the fetus’ skin.
Vernix is Latin for varnish and caseosa is Latin for cheese (1).
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 present on your baby will decrease.
Why does the substance start doing a vanishing trick? The amniotic fluid begins to absorb the vernix when your baby reaches full-term (2).
How Is Vernix Beneficial?
Vernix plays an integral part for both mom and baby.
Its benefits aren’t limited to the time spent inside the womb; there are many other aspects that it supports.
1. Antimicrobial Properties
In utero, the vernix, when swallowed by the fetus through the amniotic fluid, promotes a healthy gut balance. The proteins within it consist of more than 20 percent of amino acids. The developing gut cells, such as the intestinal epithelium and lymphocytes, require these elements.
Inside your womb, the vernix keeps your baby’s skin protected from the amniotic fluid. It prevents damage while preserving the levels of moisture required for the skin.
Then, during delivery, it acts as an antimicrobial shield against any bacteria in the mother’s genital tract. It is also said to facilitate passage through the birth canal.
A newborn has a fragile immune system, so their chances of contracting an illness are much higher. The vernix 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 mom. The vernix acts as a lubricant to help the baby smoothly glide through the birth canal and into the world.
3. Regulation Of Body Temperature
Your baby has relied on your body to help regulate his or her body temperature. It takes time after birth for their little bodies to be able 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 the super soft skin of a newborn. Did you know that vernix plays a large part in that baby skin? The vernix acts as a moisturizer and protects the baby’s skin from cracking and drying before and after delivery.
5. Muffles Sound
When your baby is in the womb, he or she has vernix in their ears that muffle sounds from the outside world. Your baby can still hear you, but the vernix ensures that he or she is less likely to be startled. There are numerous other benefits the vernix possesses, as well as some we don’t fully understand yet. The above are some of the most important. Many believe the antimicrobial properties are the most beneficial aspects associated with the vernix.
6. Reduces Stress
After spending nine months growing 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 at this time can cause unnecessary stress.
Stress can quickly cause baby’s heart rate to increase, and breathing could become irregular. Crying turns into agitation and their body may respond by lowering the 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 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, stroking their head, you’re releasing a variety of chemicals. These include oxytocin, or 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 that stress can cause.
Interesting Facts Relating To The Vernix
Putting the benefits aside, 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 of the consistency is made up 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 that first bath relatively soon, 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 of them are born with it. If a baby is born early — before 27 weeks — it is likely he or she will 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 though — it has just already been absorbed.
Should I Wash Or Rub Vernix?
There are many conflicting opinions on whether you should bathe your baby after delivery or rub the vernix into their skin. The vernix does not possess 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 height and weight. You could understand why someone would want to wash the unsightly substance off of 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 he or she will have traces of blood, amniotic fluid, and the vernix present on the skin. It isn’t unusual some parents would want this washed off of 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 exception to this, in which 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 happens within the womb. This could pose risks to your baby, so it is important he or she is thoroughly washed.
Cleaning a Baby Without a Bath
As mentioned above, your baby will have traces of blood and amniotic fluid present on the 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 the vernix aren’t removed, your baby will still reap the benefits. A simple towel rub will suffice if you want to avoid the use of 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.
Today, some hospitals have actually begun to see the first bath more as a learning experience for new parents, as opposed to a routine cleanse by hospital staff.
Bathing a wiggling newborn can be intimidating, so I’m sure most first-time moms would appreciate this lesson.
When you get home from the hospital, wait until the umbilical cord stump is off before giving baby a regular bath. Until then, a “top and tail” sponge bath is more than enough.
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 bath your baby.
Fight For Your Rights
If for whatever reason your hospital must bathe your baby and you don’t want them to, you could go with a midwife instead. A midwife is a foolproof way for you to ensure your bathing wishes are met.
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. You don’t have to miss out on this beneficial learning experience.
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 you have wishes for your baby that are different than what is typically conducted, 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 a favor by removing the vernix — you are doing a favor by leaving it on.
No, the presence of vernix is not attractive, but it is benefitting your baby. The vernix is only temporary; you can eventually wash it away. Don’t let the judgments of others stop you from following through with what you want for your child.
If you want to have your baby washed, that is your preference also. 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 them bathe your baby, it is likely this occurs before you even get a chance to try that first feeding. This isn’t the case everywhere, but in many places it is.
Those first moments with mother and baby are precious and 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 him or her 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 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 body temperature. It may help regulate 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 (8).
The reason breastfeeding becomes more successful is that the baby does not experience increased levels of stress from being taken away from mom to bathe. The 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 caseosa does not possess any risk to your baby unless meconium is present within it. If something does not harm your baby, but only benefits him or her — why wouldn’t you leave it on the skin?
At the end of the day, whether you wash or rub the vernix is a personal preference. Your baby will be just fine without either, and you should make a decision that will make you the most comfortable. Don’t make a decision based off of the judgment of others — this is your baby, not theirs!