Too often our experience with birth and newborns comes from what we see in movies and on television. In the Hollywood version of birth, the baby exits the womb looking like they have been dipped in red jelly, then in the next scene, they are rosy, clean and swaddled. As a result of this skewed version of birth soon-to-be parents often ask, "When will the baby be bathed?" Often expecting baby will be bathed within minutes of the baby being born.
The reality, however, is quite different. Once the baby is born, in the absence of any medical issues, the baby will be placed on the birthing parents chest and rubbed or invigorated to dry the baby's skin and to get them to cry. After the baby has been there for an hour and had their first latch on the breast, the baby will receive the usual newborn procedures including the eye ointment and vitamin K shot as well as being weighed. It isn't until much later, after you have been moved to the postpartum area and settled in that discussion of bathing the baby will come up. The nursing staff will often offer to bathe baby 6-12 hours after birth. Timing will usually depend on shift changes and other duties the staff may need to perform first.
In February of 2018, The World Health Organization reiterated its position on the optimal time that baby should receive their first bath. The recommendation states: "Bathing should be delayed until 24 hours after birth." There are several reasons to delay a baby's bath for at least 24 hours.
Temperature Loss After the baby is bathed they are at greater risk for loss of body heat. When this happens it can cause baby's blood sugar to drop and this can result in baby needing supplementation with formula to stabilize their blood sugar and baby could be moved to a warmer or incubator to warm them, thus separating baby and parent.
Infection Control After the baby is born, even after they have been dried off, they will have a thin layer of vernix and amniotic fluid coating their skin. This coating acts as an antibacterial layer to protect the baby while they are in the hospital and coming in contact with numerous hospital staff.
Breastfeeding and Bonding In the 24 to 48 hours after birth, the baby should be latched at the breast every 2-3 hours and skin to skin with either parent as much as possible. When the baby is bathed, the hospital will encourage baby to be dressed and swaddled to keep them warm, which prevents skin to skin and may disrupt feeding. Also from a mammalian point of view, baby and their breastfeeding parent recognize and bond with each other through smell. When the baby and the breastfeeding parent smell like soap and perfumes, this can disrupt the bonding process.
Ultimately when to bath your baby is up to you. When in hospital, if you would like to delay baby's bath until the 24-hour mark or delay it until you get home, that is perfectly possible. If you chose to have baby bathed in the hospital before the 24 hour mark, ensure you are delaying for a least 12 hours if possible and after the bath, dry baby off, put them skin to skin with the feeding parent and wrap a warm blanket around both to keep baby warm and normalize baby's blood sugar. All of which will help increase bonding and breastfeeding success.