Why I Waited As Long As Possible To Bathe My Newborn
One of the best parts of having a home birth is that things happen on their own timeline. The midwives I've seen are less rushed to induce if you go past your due date. They don't suggest going to the hospital and augmenting labor if labor is slow to progress. I want as much autonomy during labor as possible. I find the most comfort and reassurance even with the pain, knowing that I'm letting my body do its job. My midwives understand my wishes to delay cord clamping. They allow for plenty of bonding time before giving the newborn her exam. And there aren't any nurses who are going to whisk my baby away to bathe her soon after birth. And since it's important to me to respect an honor the process that nature designed, I want as little intervention as possible, and this includes a bath disrupting a time when bathing my baby wouldn't naturally occur to me. My most recent baby did not get a bath on her literal birth day. In fact, she didn't get a bath until she was almost a week old.
I knew I probably wanted to wait as long as possible to give her her first bath. I remembered with my first child just how much I loved that he still smelled of birth and his own particular scent. Our memories are so closely tied to scents, and it's no wonder that every time I smelled the top of his head, I knew he was mine. I knew he was the baby that came from my body. I think there's something really primal and cool about that. Every time I snuggled and felt and gazed at and smelled my baby, I knew he was mine, even though it is sort of a mind-blowing experience the first time around. Even though I carried him for 40 weeks and felt him kick, it was actually meeting him that made me believe I was really a mother. Those first few days, I was surprised and delighted all over again every time I picked him up. This was my baby! And the fact that he smelled like birth was no small part of that.
I realize how weird and crunchy and maybe even gross that sounds to people. After all, I also have memories that make me think that babies smell like baby shampoo. But you can't deny that waiting to bathe a baby is only natural. I doubt our ancestors gave birth and then quickly found the closest river so they could dunk their babies and clean them off. Every instinct I experienced after giving birth made me want to keep my baby close and snuggly and warm. I wanted him close to me at all times. I needed the constant reassurance that this was my baby, if only to affirm that incredible high of giving birth hadn't been a dream.
While a quick dunk in a tub probably won't undo the benefits of that, I certainly didn't want to scrub anything off of my baby that was meant to be there.
And there is science that supports the decision to wait to bathe your newborn. According to Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. there are multiple reasons why it is best to delay that first bath for 48 hours. The process of giving birth vaginally gives baby a nice colony of the mother's lifelong cultivated microflora, which is all the bacteria and fungi that inhabit our body (most notably, all those important organisms are present in our gut to help us digest food). While a quick dunk in a tub probably won't undo the benefits of that, I certainly didn't want to scrub anything off of my baby that was meant to be there. Take vernix, for example. It's the cheesy, creamy substance that the fetus develops in the third trimester. While its main purpose has always been thought to be to protect that baby's skin from their watery environment, research conducted by the Indian Journal of Dermatology shows that vernix has other benefits that continue after birth. Amniotic fluid and vernix are shown to have similar anti-microbial properties to breast milk, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. By keeping the vernix on baby's skin, you are potentially keeping a barrier on them against bad bacteria such as group B Strep and E. coli.
I'm someone who absolutely devours these studies. I love hearing how nature has come up with such amazing processes for keeping us thriving. It's not limited to the fascinating studies on microflora. I'm also so fascinated with the role of hormones in labor and birth and how the same hormone that causes contractions also causes us to fall in love with our babies. New studies into all of these fields are done all the time, and time and time again, it shows that nature's systems are pretty great and we shouldn't mess with them. Delayed cord-clamping is another example of this. So for me, I was of the opinion that if there was no proven medical benefit for any given procedure, I didn't want it. I was fortunate enough not to use any medications in labor because they weren't called for, and that worked for me. I delayed cord-clamping. I didn't put a hat on my babies the moment they were born. And I didn't bathe my newborns either. In my personal philosophy of keeping things as close to how nature intended as possible, none of those things seemed vital or necessary. I was happy just to have my baby skin to skin and not have any impediment to that bonding time.
I didn't want to use scented products or any cleansers that might clean "the good stuff" off of her.
So when my daughter was born and after we'd had a chance to bond, I took a quick shower while my partner held her. We gently wiped off the blood and meconium while leaving as much vernix on as possible. When she passed more meconium, we wiped it away with damp washcloths. I didn't want her to smell like anything other than herself. I didn't want to use scented products or any cleansers that might clean "the good stuff" off of her.
In her first few days, we'd wipe her face and eyes with damp washcloths and cleaned her diaper area, but that was it. She didn't look dirty. Even though she emerged slimy with meconium-stained fluid and lots of vernix, none of that was present even an hour or two after birth.
I was sad when I had to bathe her for the first time. Obviously, it had to happen eventually, but it isn't as if newborns are rolling in mud or dumping spaghetti on their heads. Her first bath was necessary because we'd visited the pediatrician who, for some reason, was drenched in strong-smelling cologne. (Or, at least that's how my sensitive nose perceived it.) After we left, my daughter no longer smelled like her birth. She now smelled like an over-enthusiastic teenage boy headed out for a first date. So when we got home, she took her first real bath. And it was actually a lovely experience. I got in the tub with her and slowly submerged her in the warm water. She didn't cry at all. She was settled enough in the world outside the womb that I wasn't worried as much about shocking her senses.
It just wasn't crucial for her to get a bath in her first few days. And I'd argue that most babies don't need a bath on their birth days anyway. I understand that in hospitals the staff wants to make sure blood is washed off for contamination purposes, but at home, I felt that just wasn't an issue for us. I'm having another baby soon, and my plan is pretty much the same: let nature do its thing, listen to my instincts, and hope that no one douses my baby in cologne before they're ready for a bath.