All About the Practice of Putting Disinfectant or Soap in Your Vagina During Birth
Did you know that your provider might put soap in your vagina (or a disinfectant) while your baby is crowing? Me neither. Most birthing people have no idea that this is a thing.
As a doula, I see this practice happen with some frequency in the area I serve. I get it. It sounds totally harmless, right? Read on to find out why you might not want this procedure and how to avoid having your vagina sudsed up in birth.
Using Soap & Disinfectant In the Birth Canal
Firstly, it used to be considered standard practice to do what was called a “vaginal prep” before a baby is born. The doctor uses a surgical soap, a disinfectant like betadine (povidone-iodine), or a baby shampoo (such as Johnson & Johnson). They pour the soap in your vagina and cleanse the area. Sometimes, they use some sudsing action to create bubbles.
This is no longer considered standard practice. I see this in many local hospitals when my doula clients are birthing with an OB. Also, I see it done by nurses in hospitals with a cesarean culture and no midwifery options.
Why would they want to put disinfectant or soap in your vagina?
There are many reasons why some doctors still use this outdated practice. Firstly, some doctors and nurses believe that it is necessary to disinfect the vagina for birth to prevent infection. A 2018 study showed no benefit to using a disinfectant in the vagina for both parents and babies.
Secondly, another reason they still use soap is for lubrication. Some doctors and nurses believe that soap (like Johnson & Johnson’s baby wash) will lubricate the birth canal and help your baby come out more quickly. They often jovially call this practice “the slip n’ slide.” Also, some people feel that it’s necessary to clean the baby’s head. They often make jokes and call it the “baby’s first shampoo.”
Thirdly, there is some evidence that a vaginal “prep” is helpful for cesarean prep. A 2017 study showed that putting a disinfectant soap in the vagina (or povidone-iodine) lowers the risk of endometritis (uterine infection) after a cesarean surgery. In many hospitals with high cesarean rates, this practice may be a remnant of their risk control protocol.
What’s the problem with putting soap in your vagina?
Your vagina has an amazing and intelligent microbiome of bacteria that is made to protect you and your baby from infection. In a vaginal birth, your baby becomes colonized with beneficial bacteria that support their health for life.
Putting soap in your vagina in birth disrupts the delicate microbiome. It kills or sweeps away the good bacteria. Also, it can change the pH of your vagina and change the balance of bacteria.
Would you put soap in your vagina as a lubricant?
Many doctors and nurses believe that soap is an effective vaginal lubricant. Would you ever put soap in your vagina as a lubricant? Didn’t think so! It can cause irritation, damage to the tender mucosal tissues, and sweep away natural lubrication produced by your body for birth.
Also, many of the products used for this practice have questionable safety profiles. A 1983 study showed that the chemicals in surgical soaps or disinfectants pass from the parent to the baby and they are absorbed into the blood stream. Baby wash must be harmless right? Not necessarily. In 2019, Johnson & Johnson was forced to recall their baby shampoo because it was found to contain formaldehyde (a known cancer-causing agent).
Honestly, I also feel that this practice is incredibly demeaning. It tells people that their vagina is too dirty for birth. This practice can instill a feeling of shame about your body. In reality, your vagina is perfectly made to birth your baby with an incredible orchestra of benefits.
So, what can you do if you decide you don’t like the idea of soap in your vagina?
If you’re thinking about this practice, then you might decide you don’t want soap or disinfectant used during birth. It’s important to talk to your provider to find out if this is something they do as part of their routine procedures. Put it in your birth plan!
The “slip n slide” happens during most open and vulnerable time in the birth process. It’s nearly impossible to be fully present and aware that this is happening. Be sure to tell your support people that you don’t want your doctor or nurse to use soap or betadine during birth.
Before I worked as a doula and started supporting lots of families in different birth environments, I never realized that this existed. I would have never thought that they would be dumping soap and disinfectant routinely into vaginas and on babies as they are crowning.
Are you worried about these little unexpected things that might come up in birth? You don’t know what you don’t know. When you work with a doula, you can learn about what to expect from your body, your baby, and your birthplace. I can give you a heads up about things that could come up that you haven’t thought of yet.
I want to help you learn everything you need to know to give birth with calm confidence, knowing you can handle whatever comes your way. You can schedule a complimentary one-hour consultation today and learn more about how doula support can help you birth with peaceful strength and calm confidence.