Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Baby's First Bath: rethinking a tradition in light of the latest research.

(Ricky Martin gives his baby his first bath)

One hour old. One hour of holding and gazing. One hour of nuzzling, smelling, latching and sucking. One hour of “she has my ears” and “she definitely has your mother’s nose.” One hour of the most precious time in a new family’s life. Time stands still; generations collide; the universe contracts down to be held in the grasp of her impossibly tiny fingers wrapped around your hand and heart.

The pleasant nurse asks, “Would it be alright if I weigh and measure your baby now?” The young mother elated and tired from the birth relinquishes her vulnerable newborn to the waiting nurse’s capable hands. She is as anxious as everyone else to begin these next steps in the rituals of birth.

“Eight pounds 8 ounces,” announces the nurse. “My, she is a big girl!” The doula snaps a photo of the digital reading on the scale for the baby’s memory book. The brand new father excitedly posts the vital statistics on face book for the world to see what he has created.

After measuring her length and head size, the nurse carefully places her feet down on the paper, gently pressing each of her tiny toes to the page to capture her foot prints for the birth records; one set for the birth certificate and another set for the memory book.

Then she turns to the father and says, “Well it is time for her first bath. Would you like to help?” She fills the clear plastic isolette tub with warm water and gets out a bar of hospital antibacterial soap. She makes sure the warmer is heated up just right so the baby will have a warm dry place to go to as soon as the bath is over. She knows it puts a baby at risk to let them get chilled.

“Okay Dad, can you bring your daughter over here?” instructs the nurse. She confidently guides him through the process as he gingerly picks his daughter up for the first time; painfully aware of how fragile her tiny, perfect body feels in his suddenly over large hands. The experienced nurse talks him through what has become an important bonding ritual between fathers and their babies all over the U.S. She encourages him to not be afraid as together they gently scrub the baby all over with soap and water, cleaning away germs and bacteria. She teaches him how to lather her hair with shampoo and rinse it while protecting her face and eyes. When all traces of the birth have been cleaned from her baby soft skin she is laid on the warmer, dried, diapered and carefully dressed in the tiniest white t-shirt the dad has ever seen. Finally the nurse shows him how to swaddle the baby and puts her into his waiting arms.

This washing of the baby bonding ritual is repeated in hospitals everyday all across America. Sometimes siblings or grandparents are included in this sweet experience. But the time has come to take a closer more critical look at this tradition. Numerous studies show us that when it comes to intestinal bacteria babies are a clean slate immediately after birth. Within a very short time their gut has been colonized with the right bacteria for living a healthy life. Where do these bacteria come from? There are two main sources; the mother’s vaginal passage and her skin, especially around her nipples.

As the baby passes through the birth canal she is bathed in her mother’s bacteria. This starts an important process for life-long gut health. If she doesn’t pass through the canal, due to a surgical birth, the bacteria the baby first comes in contact with is from the surrounding environment; the air, other infants, doctors and the nursing staff. Studies show it may take up to 6 months for the cesarean baby to attain the correct balance of flora in her gut.

The next way bacteria are introduced to the baby is by latching onto mother’s breast for her first feeding. The bacteria present on the mother’s skin are swallowed and starts the process which will create vitamin K in the baby’s system. Vitamin K is critical for appropriate blood clotting.

On top of all this there are special properties in the mother’s colostrum which help the good bacteria to thrive in the baby and bad bacteria to suffer.

Although we have been trained to think of bacteria as bad the truth is there are many microbes which are beneficially for our health. We are meant to live in a state of balanced symbiosis with these beneficial bacteria. That process is meant to start during the birth and continue during the hours immediately after birth; just as the squeezing of the birth canal prepares the baby for the adjustment of breathing air into her lungs to oxygenate her own blood. If we think of bacteria as bad and the baby as “dirty” then of course we feel a need to wash her. What happens if we think of the baby as being in an important microbial transition time which may impact her overall future health?

Since I wrote this more research has come out. Click here to read what the latest science says about our relationship with bacteria.