For most first-time mothers who had never held or seen a newborn immediately after birth, the whitish, waxy stuff that covers the baby’s body comes as a surprise. Some are even disgusted by it. The African beliefs do not help the situation, with myths tied to this skin ‘phenomenon’.
Ms Angela Atieno had to keep her baby from visitors for days until the skin was clear. She, and those around her, attributed the waxy substance on the baby’s skin to having sex until the last trimester of her pregnancy.
“Two days after delivery, my friend came to visit and when she saw my baby, she made a disgusting remark that annoyed me. Umezaa mtoto mchafu (you have given birth to a dirty baby),” Ms Atieno told HealthyNation.
She had to come up with an excuse for people not to see her child after that experience. Daily, she would religiously wipe the substance off the baby’s skin.
However, experts in an interview with HealthyNation, said the substance was usually formed before delivery and was important to the unborn baby as it formed a protective layer. Mothers should not be worried about giving birth to “dirty” babies, said experts.
The white, waxy substance, according to Dr Paul Mitei, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, is known as vernix caseosa, normally noticed in babies as soon as they are born. The term vernix caseosa is Latin. Vernix means varnish, which is a reasonable description of this protective layer. Caseosa means cheesy, as the substance is white and cheesy or waxy looking.
The substance comes from a baby’s sebaceous glands and consists of oil and skin cells that have been rubbed off.
The formation is mostly water content, fat as well as proteins.
It is formed over the baby’s skin during the third trimester of the mother’s pregnancy. This is noticed during the time of delivery.
Vernix is mostly white, but some times, it changes to yellowish-brown and gets a slight greenish tinge. The colour can change after the baby has passed stool for the first time.
Demystifying the myths, Dr Mitei said women should not be lied to that when they take a Coca-Cola soft drink or Guinness, the dirt will be washed off. “These are not sperms. When the baby is in the womb, he/she is covered with amniotic fluid and sperms cannot penetrate and cover the skin,” said Dr Mitei.
He said the thicker the cover, the safer the baby. “This natural coating helps prevent the chapping and wrinkling of an unborn baby's skin. As babies spend months in amniotic fluid, this substance performs an extremely important purpose of ensuring that baby’s skin while he/she is still in the mother’s womb is clean,” said the gynaecologist.
Dr Agrrey Akula, Western-based gynaecologist, said vernix also made it easier for a baby to move through its mother’s birth canal.
It also helped in fighting bacteria and other germs harmful to the baby, he said. “It has an antibacterial property and highly protects the child from any such dangers. It is also a natural moisturiser that helps keep the child’s skin smooth and soft and in healthy condition. Without the vernix, the baby’s skin will be chapped and might even have wrinkles,” said Dr Akula.
Although the substance makes the baby’s skin look unpleasant, Dr Akula advised that it was best not to wash it off immediately.
“You can wait for a while and wipe instead of washing it off. It is best to delay the first bath for as much time as possible, and the vernix on your baby will only protect him during the time,” he said.
According to the World Health Organisation, vernix after birth can remain on the baby for as long as 24 hours.
Dr Akula called on parents to allow babies to go through the natural process. “There are no scientific ways to replace the natural ways of how babies should cope with new life,” he said.