Waiting nine long months to have the big moment of the doctor putting a fresh new baby on our chest after carrying them around in the womb for the past year is a moment that keeps pregnant women excited for the labor and delivery part of childbirth. The moment will be magical, full of tears and joy and the smell of a new baby, oh my soul!
But then, delivery happens, and the little bundle they put on your chest is not as soft and cuddly as imagined. Instead, they are kind of slippery, and there is even a white, waxy coating of vernix on them. So, what is this cheesy stuff they call vernix, and what is the purpose of it?
What is Vernix?
The “stuff,” or if you prefer the actual scientific name, vernix caseous, when broken down means vernix=to varnish, caseous=cheesy nature or, a greasy deposit covering the baby’s skin at birth.
Why are Babies Covered in Vernix?
The purposes of vernix are multiple. But ultimately, it is there to protect the baby.
Vernix Protects Baby’s Skin
Vernix protects the baby’s skin while in the womb from the acidity of the amniotic fluid. Without this covering, the baby’s skin would chap and wrinkle. Vernix, while very important, takes a little while to develop fully. The groundwork for vernix starts at about three weeks gestation with the start of skin cell production. It isn’t until the glands reach peak productivity in the third trimester or roughly 27 weeks that true vernix is produced, keeping all of that new baby skin nice and safe.
There are many other benefits to this cheesy varnish besides being a protectant; it is also a moisturizer. Without it, the baby would come out looking more like a raisin than a cute plump baby.
Vernix is a Lubricant
The “cheesy substance” helps the baby become slippery enough to slide, ahem, sort of slide out of the birth canal. Vernix is also a baby’s very first blanket, keeping them at a perfect cozy temperature during their last few weeks in the womb.
Vernix is a Sound Barrier
The baby can still hear your voice, but this layer covers their ears, giving them a muffled environment, protecting their little ears.
To Wipe Off or Not to Wipe Off. What Should You do with Vernix?
Vernix is truly remarkable; humans are the only species that have it. It is full of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and anti-infection properties. In addition, research indicates that holding off on the first bath is beneficial because vernix can protect the baby from infections after birth.
Some women choose to hold off the first bath for up to a full week. If you do not want to wait that long, 24 or 48 hours will still benefit the baby. You can opt to have the nurses or your midwife do a light wash with a washcloth to remove the blood and amniotic fluid, but tell them not to remove all the vernix caseous. Instead, rub the vernix into the baby’s skin for the next few days. Luckily, babies are not born dirty, so they do not need a bath right away. Aside from fighting off the harmful bacteria, vernix helps the baby pick up good bacteria.
Vernix is for the Parents, Too
There is a theory out in the scientific world that this substance, along with amniotic fluid, contributes to the “new baby smell,” which triggers the reward centers of women’s brains, sort of like compensation for going through all of the hard work of having a baby!
The vernix is also used to help tell the doctor important things at birth based on the color and amount. For example, it is not always white, and if it is yellowish, brown, or green-tinged, it is an indicator that the baby could have possibly already passed a bowel movement, and in that case, it does need to be wiped off.
If the baby is born with very little or even no vernix, it’s possible that you were “overdue,” and all of the vernix has already gotten reabsorbed into the amniotic fluid.
Don’t be surprised if you keep seeing little bits of the sticky substance after birth and even after their first bath. Vernix likes to hide and linger in nooks and folds. You can simply wipe it away or leave it.
The benefits of this “cheesy substance” are endless, and it is just another thing about pregnancy and childbirth that is fascinating. Every part is needed to make it work right. So now, when the doctor places that sweet little babe on your chest, instead of being grossed out, you will be grateful for how it has and will continue to protect your baby for the next couple of weeks.