By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Newborns who don’t get baths right away may be more likely to be exclusively breastfed than infants who get whisked away to be washed soon after delivery, a U.S. study suggests.

Pediatricians recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed infants until at least 6 months of age because it can reduce babies’ risk of ear and respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome, allergies, childhood obesity and diabetes. While breast milk itself is linked to many of these health benefits, so is the skin-to-skin contact that happens when babies nurse.

But many new mothers still don’t breastfeed exclusively in the hospital or stop doing so when they go home, researchers note in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing.

While some women stop nursing because it’s too painful or difficult, or because work schedules make it impossible, some previous research suggests that breastfeeding can get off to a better start when mothers aren’t separated from babies in the hospital and get more opportunities in those first few days for bonding and skin-to-skin contact.

In the current study, researchers examined exclusive breastfeeding rates at one hospital that changed its newborn bathing policy from washing infants within two hours of delivery to delaying baths until 12 to 24 hours after birth. The study included 448 mothers and babies with deliveries under the old bathing policy and 548 mother-infant pairs who were covered by the new delayed bathing policy.

The proportion of mothers who exclusively breastfed while in the hospital rose from about 60 percent with rapid bathing to 68 percent with the new delayed bathing policy.

“Our previous practice encouraged early separation of mother and baby,” said lead study author Heather DiCioccio, a nursing professional development specialist at Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield, Ohio.

“We would bathe the baby on the warmer in labor and delivery or if the labor and delivery nurse was getting the mother up to the bathroom for the first time, we would take the baby to the nursery for the bath,” DiCioccio said by email. “By delaying the bath, this separation does not happen.”

During their hospital stay, mothers were 49 percent more likely to exclusively breastfeed babies after the new policy, the study found.

Women were also more likely to report they planned to continue breastfeeding at least some of the time when they were discharged from the hospital.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how the timing of newborn baths might directly affect breastfeeding. Researchers also lacked data on how many women breastfed babies after they went home from the hospital, and how many did so exclusively.

But the study adds to the evidence that postponing that first bath may benefit babies, said Jennifer Yourkavitch, a lactation consultant at the Center for Women’s Health and Wellness at The University of North Carolina, Greensboro, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Bathing an infant immediately after birth can instigate a negative chain of events for the breastfeeding experience,” Yourkavitch said by email.

A bath right after birth can make babies cold and require them to burn fat to stay warm, which in turn can cause stress and low blood sugar. When blood sugar gets too low, babies are more likely to receive formula, and formula supplementation can then make it harder to get infants to latch on the breast and nurse,” Yourkavitch added.

“Being cold and stressed makes it difficult for an infant to feed effectively,” Yourkavitch said.

Babies don’t need to bathe right away unless there’s a specific risk of infection, such as with HIV, said Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, a pediatrics researcher at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, New Jersey, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“So, the message to moms and families is that the bath will be delayed to focus on other more important and time-sensitive issues such as breastfeeding,” Feldman-Winter said by email. “By delaying the bath until the second day, moms can participate in the first bath.”

SOURCE: Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing, online January 21, 2019.