How Friendly Bacteria in Birth Can Protect Your Baby’s Health
With increased numbers of Caesarean sections taking place in Ireland and a multitude of studies into the impact of a C-section birth, eumom pregnancy and birth expert Tracy Donegan looks at one of the key areas of interest – the importance of gut bacteria.
Last week there was a media storm over a study that suggested children born by Caesarean section were more likely to become obese. It’s not clear why this is the case and many of the reports surrounding this study left out an important detail that could hold the key – gut bacteria. A small study published in Nature a year previously suggested a distinct link between the composition of our gut microbiota and incidence of obesity and related metabolic conditions, including cardiovascular disorders and diabetes.
What is gut bacteria – and why do we need it?
Your body contains trillions of cells, and many of these micro organisms do a great job training our immune system by recognising disease-producing bacteria, producing Vitamin K. These special micro organisms are essential for health and wellbeing, but what if being born via Caesarean section means your baby has missed out on what could be considered his first immunisation?
Micro organisms are essential for health, but what if being born via Caesarean means your baby has missed out on what could be considered his first immunisation?
The types of bacteria in the guts of babies born by Caesarean tend to differ from those born vaginally. Babies born vaginally are colonised by lactobacillus, whereas babies born by Caesarean have more pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria such as staphylococcus. Interestingly, a recent study has shown that mice could be made obese or lean just by changing their gut bacteria.
When a baby is born vaginally, it is exposed to mom’s vaginal and intestinal flora, which is the start of your baby’s colonisation (also known as seeding). In a planned Caesarean, this doesn’t happen and babies are colonised with more disease-causing bacteria instead of ‘friendly’ bacteria. Some studies are showing a difference in these micro organisms even seven years later between babies born vaginally and babies born by C-section.
What does this mean for your baby?
This area of research is exploding and we still have a lot to learn. It seems that vaginal birth ‘switches on’ your baby’s immunity, and some studies are showing an increased risk for allergies in Caesarean-born babies. If not breastfed, your baby is also missing out on the benefits of breastfeeding, which also protects the baby’s gut. Studies also show that between 64 and 82 per cent of reported cases of MRSA skin infections in newborns occurred in infants born by Caesarean section.
“Vaginal birth ‘switches on’ your baby’s immunity, and some studies are showing an increased risk for allergies in Caesarean-born babies”
Caesareans have also been associated with a significant increased rate of asthma, especially in girls, and allergic rhinitis. This increase was even more apparent looking at the risk of asthma which was increased by 60 per cent in baby girls who underwent a repeat Caesarean without ruptured membranes (waters breaking), versus those babies with waters released and/or labour prior to the Caesarean. Type 1 diabetes has been on the increase, and studies have found a 19 per cent increase in Type 1 diabetes in Caesarean children. So labour seems to have protective factors for babies, or at minimum a Caesarean after the waters have been released.
But as we learn more about these micro organisms and their role in our health, more questions need answering. How do antibiotics in pregnancy, labour or right before a Caesarean impact the colonisation of your baby’s gut with this ‘friendly’ bacteria?
How our babies are born may have far reaching consequences that we are just starting to understand. This becomes even more important as Caesarean rates increase and the lack of meaningful support by healthcare professionals for VBAC.
How can you help your baby get more ‘friendly’ bacteria after birth?
There’s no doubt that Caesareans are necessary and save lives, but what if you could actively help reduce your baby’s risk of allergic reactions and potential health problems by ‘seeding’ your baby’s gut with all the good bacteria?
There are growing reports of moms and midwives promoting the use of vaginal swabs pre-Caesarean section which is then wiped over baby after the baby is born. So your baby gets your bacteria and not the bacteria from the hospital wall! A millilitre of vaginal fluid contains, on average, around 100 million micro organisms from 5-10 species, 95 per cent of which are from the lactobacillus family (the good stuff!).
This is an emerging area of research and there is limited available evidence to support this practice, but it does make sense. Other ways to seed your baby include establishing breastfeeding after your C-section and probiotic supplements. Some midwives in the US are taking a ‘bottom’ up approach and attempting to seed the baby by using natural live yoghurt as a nappy cream in the first days following a Caesarean. This good bacteria seem to tolerate life outside of the body, so it’s likely that your baby can reap the benefits of this odd but inventive practice.
“Some midwives in the US are taking a ‘bottom’ up approach and attempting to seed the baby by using natural live yoghurt as a nappy cream in the first days following a Caesarean”
However, the ideal bacteria for baby to receive is of course yours. Some women having planned Caesareans are proactively taking samples of their vaginal secretions (with their finger) before going to theatre and placing the fluid around their nipples so their baby is exposed to that good bacteria as soon as possible.
At worst you might feel a bit weird doing this (nobody has to know) – at best you may reduce your baby’s risk of health problems in later life.
Microbiome research is in it's infancy and as it is evolving there has been some debate on whether vaginal 'seeding' is safe for a baby born to a mum who is GBS+. Talk to your careprovider if you are considering this option.