You’ve just given birth to your beautiful little baby and you’re all ready for cuddles. You’ve been waiting for 9 months for this moment!
But wait… What’s that white, waxy, cheesy substance coating baby’s skin? Yeesh, that’s kinda gross.
That waxy stuff is called vernix
And yes, the sticky, white, cheese-like coating covering your precious little one may not look that appealing. Which is why birth center or hospital staff may want to wash baby off right away.
Don’t let them!
Vernix offers a number of benefits for baby when you leave it on or rub it in.
What is vernix?
Vernix begins to form on the unborn baby at about 20 weeks gestation, partially to prevent baby’s skin from getting too waterlogged after marinating in amniotic fluid month after month. Unlike skin cells, vernix is more mobile and fluid. It is also more permeable to the transport of water and other small molecules to the baby. (source)
Even though it helps protect baby’s skin from amniotic fluid, the creamy vernix itself contains about 80% water. There are plenty of beneficial components to the vernix. Scientists have identified lipids, amino acids, proteins, antibacterial, and antimicrobial compounds including:
- wax and sterol esters
- and amino acids, asparagine and glutamine
About 61% of the proteins found in this white substance, can only be found in vernix. And humans are the only ones that produce it, making it truly unique. (source)
Vernix begins to form on the unborn baby at about 27 weeks gestation, in the third trimester.
Germ fighting superhero
One of the primary purposes of vernix is to protect the infant from unwanted pathogens, both in the womb, and out of it. The mucus plug, and amniotic sac both help protect baby from harmful bacteria, but the vernix is truly the last line of defense.
It’s a skin cleanser and antioxidant. It also offers a protective covering while going through the birth canal. This allows baby to pick up good bacteria as well as potentially avoid overgrowths of bad bacteria, viruses and fungi in the mother’s vagina including:
- E. coli
- Group B Strep
- Staph aureus
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa
- Candida albicans
- Listeria monocytogenes
- Serratia marcescens
- Klebsiella pneumonia
These pathogens can cause things like diarrhea, meningitis and pneumonia in newborn infants.
Protects from meconium exposure
When baby has his first poop, it’s not your traditional brown color, but a green, tar-like substance. This first poo, also called meconium, consists of “amniotic fluid, secretions of the intestinal glands, bile pigments, fatty acids, and intrauterine debris.” While it’s a pain to clean out of a cloth diaper, it can become dangerous if it’s passed before birth in some instances. The vernix plays a key role in helping to protect the baby from early exposure.
Most hospitals will put infants under special lights if their body temperature is too low, or baby is having a hard time maintaining warmth. (Only recently have hospitals rediscovered the power of mama’s chest to regulate baby’s body temperate, even better than fancy equipment!)
But, vernix, with its thick, waxy coating, helps to insulate the baby. Infants who have it immediately washed off have a significantly higher rate of heat loss. Although there is some disagreement as to how much of a role the vernix plays in keeping newborns warm, it is a factor. (source)
Minimizes birth trauma
Birth can be a traumatic or stressful time for a baby. The vernix acts as a lubricant in the vaginal canal. This helps baby make his transition into the outside world, and decreases friction during birth. (source) Vernix also smells of mama, which may provide comfort and ease of bonding post birth.
Who has it, who doesn’t?
When your baby is born, the vernix may be thick and very noticeable, or it could be so thin that it’s only in the creases of the skin. Why the differences?
- Babies born via C-section have more as the vernix hasn’t been rubbed off during delivery through the vaginal canal
- Babies born after 27 weeks, but earlier than full gestation also retain more
- Early preemies (pre-27 wks), full-term babies, and those born after 40 weeks will have less
The breastmilk connection
The immune proteins found in the vernix and amniotic fluid are very similar to the ones found in breastmilk. During the end of pregnancy, vernix thins and some of it sheds into the amniotic fluid that baby is now breathing. This antimicrobial, peptide-rich mixture enters the baby’s lungs and digestive tract, and helps prepare the digestive tract for the similar peptides found in breastmilk. This helps prepare the baby’s body for the transition to the outside world by prepping, and nourishing their digestive systems. (source) Amazing!
What purpose does it serve?
In the womb
- Prevents loss of electrolytes and fluids
- Seals the skin to prevent the amniotic fluid from permeating it
- Acts as a microbial barrier from unwanted pathogens
- Provides a protective layer to facilitate skin growth underneath
Out of the womb
- Decreases skin pH and helps form the protective acid mantle
- Protects from pathogens
- Moisturizes and keeps skin soft, and supple
- Contains that new baby smell to help mom and baby bond during breastfeeding
Why do nurses rub it off right away?
The vast majority of nurses either immediately scrub the vernix from the baby, or do so after some brief, skin-to-skin bonding time with mom (like in my second birth). These hospital policies developed out of our germaphobic culture. (And, it does look pretty gross, so wiping it off looks better for newborn pictures.)
Old school nurses were even taught that vernix was a biohazard and needed to be rubbed off to avoid germ exposure. That’s ironic since it’s both antibacterial and antimicrobial in nature. If necessary, blood, amniotic fluid, and other vaginal secretions can be gently wiped off of the baby, without disturbing the vernix very much.
Lastly, briskly washing and drying the newborn was thought to stimulate proper breathing in the baby. Even though American hospitals especially have held onto many outdated practices, removing the vernix isn’t necessary. Professional groups like the World Health Organization, and the National Association of Neonatal Nursing actually recommend leaving it on. (source)
Humans have what is called an acid mantle on our skin. This protective barrier develops on a newborn shortly after birth, and helps prevent infections from bad bacteria. The vernix is thought to facilitate proper development of the acid mantle, and baby’s skin pH regulates more quickly when it isn’t removed.
World’s best moisturizer
Quiz time. What locks moisture into skin better than coconut oil, shea butter, and everything else? Vernix, of course. Not only does it provide a waterproofing barrier in the womb, but it helps baby’s skin retain moisture better than any lotion or cream. In fact, it does such a good job, that scientists are trying to create a synthetic version for preemie infants, burn victims, and those with dry skin. (source)
Vernix benefits for mom
Not only is this magical substance awesome for baby, but it’s good for mom too. Because it’s antibacterial and antimicrobial in nature, it can help prevent infection of the vaginal canal as the baby passes through. It also has superior wound healing properties, and has even been shown to help perineal tears heal better (perineal massage helps too). (source)
Does a water birth wash vernix off?
Even though the vernix is 80% water, this water is trapped in a matrix. The vernix is actually a very hydrophobic barrier, so it doesn’t wash off easily. It takes a lot of scrubbing to remove it from the skin, so a water birth alone won’t wash it off. Your baby has been floating in amniotic fluid for 9 months, so a little water won’t do much to the vernix!
How to rub vernix in
As soon as baby is born, it’s natural (and good!) for both mom and baby to have skin-on-skin bonding time right on mom’s chest. This is the perfect time to gently massage the vernix into baby’s skin. It’s easy to do, and rubs in just like body butter.
Okay, so when should I give my baby his or her first bath?
The majority of the vernix is absorbed within the first day, so anytime after the first 24 hours would be okay to give baby his first bath.
Vernix doesn’t fully absorb until day 5 or 6, so it would be best to wait until then. In the meantime, gently wipe off any spit up, baby poo, and other messes with warm water and maybe a mild soap. (source)
How about you?
When did your baby get their first bath? Let us know in the comments below!