When a baby is born, their skin can sometimes be covered in a creamy-white coating that could be lumpy in specific areas or spread all over. Some parents describe it as being slightly greasy and it often compared to cream cheese. Although it can look slightly unsightly, it is a special substance known as vernix caseosa (often just referred to as vernix), it has many benefits to your baby and is completely normal.
What is vernix caseosa?
The vernix caseosa is produced during your pregnancy, usually around the 19th week of gestation and it continues to thicken until around 34 weeks. Its purpose is to protect the baby from amniotic fluid in utero and to act like a barrier, it is made up of shed skin cells and sebaceous secretions. By week 40 of your pregnancy, the vernix coating has begun to naturally rub off and dilute into the amniotic fluid.
Although the primary purpose of vernix caseosa is to moisturise, protect and hydrate baby’s skin it also helps to nourish the baby and helps to develop important gut bacteria as the baby swallows vernix whilst in the womb. The vernix can also act as a natural lubricant to help the baby travel down the birth canal.
All babies create vernix in the womb although if a baby is born on or after their due date it may not be visible or on their skin by the birth and if a baby is born prematurely, they may have thicker quantities on their skin.
Should it be washed off immediately?
Unless there are signs of meconium on the vernix (usually yellow or green stains), it is recommended by WHO (World Health Organisation) to leave the vernix on the baby for at least six hours and up to and over 24 hours where possible. The vernix can continue to protect your baby’s skin after birth by resisting bacteria that may cause early infections. It also helps to retain moisture and to keep the skin hydrated. Babies who are born without vernix are more prone to drier skin.
It is believed that the smell of vernix triggers neural connections in the baby’s brain and aids the latching on process for breastfeeding. It is also thought that the vernix is responsible for the ‘new baby smell’ which can trigger an emotional response from the mother.
You may want to think about your preferences regarding washing off the vernix and record it in your birth plan so that your midwife can discuss it with you in more detail.
When you decide to wash the vernix off your baby, it is important to do so gently and carefully. Your midwife will be able to offer advice on bathing your baby. After bathing, you may notice that your baby’s skin begins to dry out and begin to peel, especially on the hands and feet, this is normal and nothing to be worried about. You should leave these flakes alone as they will disappear naturally on their own. You may continue to find vernix caseosa remains in skin creases and leg folds on your baby for several days and possibly weeks, this is completely normal and if you wish to, you should remove gently with cotton wool and water. You should speak to your midwife if you have any concerns or questions.