When we think of new babies, we tend to think of perfectly pink, clean bundles of love. So it may be surprising when your baby is born with white goo all over his body. What is that stuff?! Well, that’s vernix caseosa (more commonly referred to as vernix) and it literally means “cheesy varnish.” This white, cheesy coating protects your baby in the womb, during delivery, and after birth, and it’s really pretty amazing.
Vernix begins to form during the twentieth week of gestation. Maternal hormones and sebaceous lipids signal the sebaceous glands to begin excreting this substance.
What is vernix made of?
One of the main functions of vernix is to protect the baby’s skin from the amniotic fluid (so it does not become “waterlogged” during gestation), so it is rather ironic that its composition is roughly 80% water. It is also composed of lipids (fats), amino acids, proteins, and antibacterial and antimicrobial compounds. 60% of what makes up vernix is only found in vernix! How incredible is that? Scientists have yet to replicate vernix for protective use in infants born before 27 weeks, where vernix can be beneficial, but tends to be scarce.
What does vernix do?
Because vernix has SO many function, the most logical way to explain what it does is to break it down into three parts: during pregnancy, during delivery, and after birth.
- The main function of vernix during pregnancy is to protect the baby’s skin from amniotic fluid (think about how your skin would look if it was in liquid for 40 weeks). Because of the antimicrobial and antibacterial properties of vernix, it also protects baby from meconium should they pass any prior to delivery.
- Vernix also helps prepare baby for life after delivery. Towards the end of pregnancy, the vernix thins and is shed into the amniotic fluid, which the baby then ingests. Some of the proteins found in vernix are also present in breast milk, so the ingestion of vernix prepares the baby’s digestive system for nursing by exposing it to these proteins.
- Because of the antimicrobial and antibacterial nature of vernix, it also protects baby from unwanted bacteria, most commonly after your water breaks. Baby may be exposed to these unwanted pathogens through vaginal exams or from migration from the vagina (which is why most providers want you to deliver within 24 hours of your water breaking).
- Vernix will help protect your baby from undesirable bacteria that may be encountered in the birth canal including, but not limited to: E. coli, Group B Strep, Staph aureus, Pseudomonas aruginosa, and Klebsiella pneumonia.
- While protecting baby from potentially harmful bacteria, it also helps baby pick up and hold onto good bacteria. I mean, HOW FREAKING AMAZING IS THAT??
- It acts as a lubricant during delivery to help ease baby’s transition to the world.
- After birth, vernix can help your baby regulate their body temperature by acting as an insulating layer. Together with immediate skin-to-skin, your body and the vernix on your baby are more effective than an artificial incubator!
- Vernix smells like amniotic fluid and the two smell like breast milk. Leaving vernix on your baby for the first 24 hours can contribute to breastfeeding success.
- Vernix acts as a great moisturizer for baby’s skin (and your own).
- As long as your baby has not been washed, the hospital staff must wear gloves when handling your baby. The physical barrier created by the gloves is yet another way to prevent microbe transmission to baby while in the hospital.
How long should we leave the vernix on baby?
The majority of vernix is absorbed within the first 24 hours of birth. It is recommended to delay your baby’s first bath for at least 24 hours to help them receive the benefits of this amazing and unique substance. However, it is important to note that vernix is not fully absorbed until 5-6 days after delivery (once your mature milk has come in), so if possible, it is best to wait at least a week to bathe your baby.
Are all babies born with vernix?
Yes and no. Since baby begins to make vernix during week 20, babies born after 20 weeks gestation have some vernix, but not to the same extent as babies who are born closer to full term, as it is still being synthesized. Babies who are born before 27 weeks and after 40 weeks tend to have less vernix physically present than babies born between 27 and 40 weeks.
This article is for informational purposes only. The content contained here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease. It should not take the place of consultation with your healthcare provider.