You may have heard about fecal microbiota transplants (FMTs). It is a treatment that transfers healthy gut microbes from one person to another. It is an emerging therapy for disorders of the microbiome. Your microbiome is all the microorganisms that live on or inside your body. The majority live in the gut as bacteria.
When your body has a healthy balance of microorganisms, you get lots of health benefits, including a healthy immune system. When your microbiome is out of balance it is called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis has been liked to immune disease, allergy, inflammatory disease, cancer, and psychiatric disease. You can read more about the microbiome here.
FMT is an emerging treatment for antibiotic-related diarrhea caused by the bacteria C diff. It is also being used to treat inflammatory bowel disease. A recent study even found benefits for alcoholic cirrhosis. But, what does all this have to do with babies.
There are two ways to get healthy gut microbes into another person. They both start with a stool sample from a healthy person that is purified to remove any unhealthy microbes. The sample can then be made into an oral medication (oral fecal transplant) or given by an enema. A new study suggests an oral FMT for newborns could benefit babies born by C-section.
Why FMT May Benefit Cesarean-Born Infants
The inside of the womb is a microbe-free environment. In order to get off to a good start with a healthy microbiome, newborns depend on getting microbes from their mothers. One way is through breast milk, but a more important source seems to be the mothers gut bacteria that crosses over to babies as they pass down the birth canal. This is called vertical transfer.
Babies born by C-section do not get exposed to gut bacteria in the birth canal. Several studies suggest that this delays development of a healthy microbiome, especially during the first 6 months. One study that followed C-section babies for up to 40 years found that they are at higher risk for immune system diseases than babies born vaginally.
These diseases include inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and diabetes. Although the exact reason for this risk is not known, many researchers suspect it is due to delayed development of a healthy microbiome. That brings us to the new study.
Fecal Transplant Restores Gut Bacteria in C-Section Babies
The new study is from researchers in Finland and is published in the scientific journal Cell. Three weeks before planned C-section deliveries, mothers gave a stool sample that was made into a safe oral solution for FMT. Seven babies born by C-section were given the oral solution added to breast milk soon after birth. After 3 months, stool samples of these babies were compared to stool samples from babies born vaginally. The babies treated with the FMT’s had microbiomes similar to vaginal birth babies.
The researchers call their study a proof-of-concept study, which means it shows that FMTs for babies could work and is safe. Don’t expect this to become a standard treatment for C-section babies any time soon, but it may be routine in the future.
What Can Be Done for Microbiome Health in C-Section Babies?
The concern about the effects of C-sections on a baby’s microbiome development is not new. Previous studies have tried to transfer some of a mother’s microbes to C-section newborns by swabbing the mother’s vagina and rubbing it over the babies skin, but this has not been shown to be very effective.
For now, the best way to get a baby’s microbiome off to a healthy start is breastfeeding. Lots of early skin-to-skin contact may also help. These two recommendations are safe and solid. Finally, many sources recommend infant probiotics added to formula or breast milk. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) some studies show that adding a probiotic may reduce immune system diseases like asthma, allergy, and eczema. However, infant probiotic supplements are still controversial as far as effectiveness and safety. APA says always talk to your pediatrician first.