Vernix: I said hold the cheese!

bagel with cream cheese

This conversation may make things between you and your morning bagel awkward and I’m sorry for that, but there’s no denying the resemblance between vernix, and the delicious spread for bagels known as…cream cheese!

Because blood and fluid all over our brand new baby, isn’t enough, they needed a dollop of cream cheese smeared all over them too.

But is it icky?

No! It’s actually pretty freaking awesome!

Vernix, or vernix caseosa if you’d like to be fancy and scientific, is the white, waxy, cream-cheese-like substance that coats a newborn’s skin at birth.

Around the 20th week of pregnancy the subcutaneous glands, which are responsible for lubrication, on parts of the body like the scalp of an adult, begin secreting sebum which accumulates on the fetus’s skin. It builds to the most notable point in term infants. Those who are preterm, haven’t built up a coating and those who are post-term are likely to experience “postdates desquamation” which is thought to cause the skin to “flake off” due to the lack of vernix.

So what purpose does vernix serve?

A few things, actually. It forms a hydrophobic barrier that allows the epidermis of the fetus to form correctly in utero. It has antimicrobial properties to help protect the baby as it passes through the birth canal. It may play a role in temperature regulation post-delivery. It’s also incredibly hydrating, moisturizing, and contains antioxidants, so it’s incredible for the baby’s skin.

A recent study found that vernix contained 41 proteins, 25 of which were unique only to vernix. 39% of the identified proteins are involved in innate immunity and 29% of the proteins are anti-microbial. Protecting the fetus from bacteria in the birth canal and the post-birth environment, is likely a huge part of vernix’s function.

Should vernix be wiped off immediately?

Let’s think about it. We have a wet, goopy baby that we need to keep warm. First thought would suggest that we clean it and bundle it up, right? Well, maybe not. As obstetrical care has moved to a more evidence-based model, the practice of immediately wiping the newborn is being phased out. The Association of Women’s Health Obstetrical and Neonatal Nurses and the World Health Organization both recommend leaving vernix intact on the skin surface of newborns. Many hospitals are also delaying the first bath to allow the baby to receive as many benefits as possible from the presence of vernix on their skin.

Despite looking a little suspect and potentially ruining your appetite for that bagel and cream cheese, vernix is some seriously awesome stuff!

As with anything in doula work, the birthing person’s choice is what is most important. If they want to rub all the goodness into their baby (or themselves) that’s great. But if they don’t, we recognize that that is also great.

Regardless of the evidence, a parents choice to be skin to skin with their baby without vernix is one that we respect. Evidence-based does not equal right-for-everyone-every-time.

Some people prefer their bagels with butter.