Adequate hygiene measures during pregnancy and after the birth of your baby can help improve your and your baby’s well-being and minimize infection risk. Here are some useful pointers to keep in mind.
Your hygiene needs during pregnancy and following the birth of your baby
Keep your surroundings clean – Regular vacuuming, wiping of surfaces, washing of communal textiles (e.g. cushion covers) and thorough cleaning of the toilet and the kitchen can help reduce illness caused by pathogens that may have been brought in from the outside, grown where there’s been traces of food or reproduced in dirtier areas of the house. A clean house will also help deter mites and insects from setting up camp. Be aware of using too much disinfectant, though, as the chemicals in these can affect your and your baby’s health. Opt for eco-friendly products, wherever possible.
Wash your hands! – We all know the drill by now. Yet, washing your hands is the single most important thing you can do to prevent infectious diseases. Wash them regularly, before and after meals, food preparation and changing maternity pads, when you get in from the street, after being in contact with people who live outside your home and after you’ve been to the toilet. Also, wash them before preparing your baby’s feeds and before and after nappy care.
Sanitise them – As a minimum, spray your hands after every toilet trip and before and after you care for your perineum or caesarean section wound. Take your sanitiser to hospital and have one in your bag for when you’re out and about, as you’ll need to use it more often if you have no immediate access to soap and water.
The World Health Organisation recommend for it to be effective, a hand-sanitiser needs to contain a minimum of 60% alcohol and be used on visibly clean hands. It is worth noting that alcohol free hand-sanitisers need to be rubbed onto the skin for a minimum of 2 minutes to be effective and may contain skin irritants. Choose a product that includes soothing and moisturising ingredients which protect your skin from becoming too dry, irritated or sore.
Clean food – Unwashed fruit and vegetables may not only carry pathogens from other people’s hands but any soil that is still on it could also potentially carry bacteria that is harmful in pregnancy. So, scrub these under running water, but avoid using soap or detergent. Make sure that kitchen equipment and surfaces used for food preparation are cleaned properly before and after each use and be particularly thorough if these have been used to prepare any raw meats.
Personal hygiene – It is normal to experience increased vaginal discharge in pregnancy, but this does not mean you need to wash more often. On the contrary, soaps and products aimed at ‘intimate hygiene’ can disturb your natural skin flora and cause dryness and irritation. Therefore, it is best to only use clean water when washing your vulval area and to avoid any form of ‘douching’ (washing inside the vagina). To keep clean and fresh, opt for underwear made of natural fibres (e.g. cotton, bamboo, silk), avoid tight trousers and, if you need to use panty-liners, opt for re-usable ones.
After the birth of your baby, it is also important to keep your vulva clean, as you will be bleeding and may have torn, grazed or had an episiotomy. So, change your sanitary pads regularly (even if not soaked), rinse the area with warm water after you use the toilet and gently pat it dry.
If you find that your breasts are leaking milk during pregnancy or after your baby is born, invest in some soft, reusable breast-pads and change them as often as needed. If your nipples are dry, tender or cracked, avoid using soap over the area and regularly apply a soothing nipple balm that will protect and moisturise.
Lastly, your baby loves the smell of your skin and, yes, also of your sweat! So do take a daily shower or bath if you wish to but avoid perfumed soaps and try to only rinse over your breasts and genitals.
Your baby’s hygiene needs
Their skin - As babies need time to absorb vernix (the white, creamy substance that coats babies’ skin at birth) and to enjoy as much skin-to-skin contact as possible, it is best to postpone their first bath (the WHO recommends at least 24 hours). A daily ‘top and tail’ is recommended and using clean, warm water is best for both rituals. If you wish to use a baby wash, make sure you choose one that it is as natural as possible, free from nasties and non-foaming.
Pay special attention to your baby’s skin folds (in neck, arms, legs, chest, buttocks, etc) when cleaning and ensure you dry these areas well. Only the outside of your baby’s ears should be cleaned. Using cotton swabs is strongly discouraged.
Good nappy care – You can avoid irritation by changing your baby’s nappy regularly and always as soon as possible after they’ve had a poo. Limiting the use of wet wipes and using cottonwool/a washable sponge with warm water will also help. If you have a little girl, always wipe front to back and gently clean the folds in their vulva, without rubbing.
Feeding – Your breasts don’t need to be ‘squeaky’ clean to breastfeed your baby. Rinsing them with warm water and changing breast-pads regularly will suffice. Also, try to only use nipple balms that do not need to be wiped off before feeding.
If you are formula feeding, ensure all feeding equipment is thoroughly washed before sterilising it and pay attention to the surfaces on which you prepare your baby’s feeds, as contamination can occur easily.
Their microbiome - In order to build their microbiome (which will, in turn, help develop their immune system), your baby’s skin and gut needs to be colonised by friendly bacteria and other microbes. By keeping the environment too sterile, we risk inhibiting this. Therefore, it is important to find the right balance.
Understanding the “what, how and why” of your and your baby’s hygiene’s needs can help you meet them and, in turn, keep both of you well and healthy during pregnancy and the postnatal period.