The history books are filled with old parenting practices that make us shudder today and we’ve looked at many of them before. This week we’re looking at an old practice that would urge you to cover your baby in rendered pig fat to help remove a substance that had been protecting your newborn’s skin for months. But, unbeknownst to them, that substance is so good at moisturising skin that the entire beauty industry has been trying to replicate it for years.
In previous week we’ve discovered that it’s good luck to spit in a baby’s face and learned how likely you are to get away with doing it in different countries (71). We’ve taken a look at baby cages that were once all the rage in the 1930’s (94), That we used to post babies in the mail (142) and we’ve also shone light on the “hands-off” approach to parenting where you restrict physical contact (109) – that week also showed the devastating effects caused by that approach.
This week we’re looking at a no less peculiar bit of parenting advice that arose during the late 1800s and early 1900s. For a newborn’s first bath they should bathe in lard or some other kind of grease!
The purpose of this weird recommendation was to expedite the removal of the sticky, waxy, cheese-like substance that sometimes coats a newborns skin. This substance is called vernix caseosa or simply vernix. Vernix caseosa comes from the Latin meaning “Cheesy Varnish” and was the subject of week 81’s Fun Fact.
If you were a mother in this decade a 100 years ago, you would have been told that in order to have a beautiful baby your must refrain from thinking about ugly things or having ugly thoughts!
Vernix is often seen as undesirable and many people completely overlook how amazing it is. It stays on a baby’s skin for most of their time in utero and helps protect its delicate skin for all those months. It does have a little help from lanugo, the fine hair that coats a baby, that provides it with an anchor so it can stay in contact with the skin.
Vernix is more often found on early and preterm babies and is more prevalent on caesarean babies because it doesn’t get rubbed off through the birth canal.
Vernix acts as a mechanical barrier from many viruses and bacteria during pregnancy and after birth, yet it still allows beneficial bacteria through. This is essential during its journey through the birth canal to help seed a baby’s microbiome. During that journey, vernix also acts as a lubricant and helps to reduce any friction that can occur.
In utero and once born, vernix helps babies to regulate their temperature and its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties benefit a mother too. It is known to prevent infection in the birth canal and because of its brilliant wound healing abilities, perineal tearing will heal better in its presence. These wound healing abilities are currently being investigated to help produce grafts for burn victims.
Aside from protecting a baby’s skin for months from the watery environment of the womb, vernix helps a newborn’s skin in many ways:
It contains the anti-oxidants vitamin E and melanin that help counter the high levels of oxidative stress that accompanies birth.
Humans have something called an acid mantle on our skin. The acid mantle is a super fine, slightly acidic film found on the surface of our skin. This acid mantle acts as a barrier to bacteria, viruses and other potential contaminants that may infiltrate the skin. Vernix helps facilitate proper development of the acid mantle and, when present and not removed, helps a baby’s skin PH levels regulate far quicker.
Vernix is a phenomenal moisturiser and outperforms virtually every type of skin moisturiser available including shea butter and coconut oil. It is so good that it has been studied by the beauty industry for years to try and unlock its secrets.
The whole purpose of this old advice was to remove the very thing that had protected a baby’s skin for months and would disappear all by itself over the first week of a babies life. By allowing it to soak in, vernix helps to establish and nourish a babies skin, protecting it from harmful pathogens and helping regulate its temperature.
So the next time you see a baby covered in a cheesy varnish, “Don’t Rub It Off – Rub It In” and think how lucky they are to have such an amazing substance protecting their skin, moisturising and nourishing it far better than any other substance known to man.