As well as your hair and eyes, your baby shares something else with you: their microbiome. The microbiome is a complex network of bacteria that live in different parts of your body, such as your gut, skin, and vagina. These bacteria serve many purposes, including aiding the development of the immune system, preventing and fighting infection, and, in the case of the digestive tract, processing food.
When babies are born, they do not have a microbiome and the fetal intestinal tract is actually sterile at birth. The microbiome forms as a result of exposure to bacteria and in babies who are born vaginally, this exposure comes from bacteria in the mother’s birth canal.
Babies who are born via cesarean section do not experience exposure to these bacteria, although they are exposed to other beneficial bacteria through breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact. Some studies have suggested that babies delivered via cesarean section are at a higher risk of developing health issues such as asthma, allergies, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders, although these outcomes need to be confirmed. One hypothesis for these results is that this increased risk of health issues is because these babies were not exposed to their mothers’ vaginal bacteria.
So why exactly is gut bacteria important?
In recent years, the importance of gut bacteria has begun to emerge in various studies. Up to 10,000 different species of bacteria inhabit our bodies and they perform important functions such as regulating our immune system, digesting food, and protecting us from infection. It is very important that your body recognises these beneficial bacteria as friends and not foe. It is thought that the immune system is less sensitive to bacteria that have been previously ingested and when a baby ingests bacteria from the birth canal during delivery, this bacteria colonizes the intestines and trains the immune system to not reject it later on. This might mean a reduction in autoimmune conditions and allergies, which are due to the immune system being overly sensitive.
Vaginal seeding: Promising, but more research needed
In an effort to help colonize the microbiome of an infant delivered by C-section, vaginal seeding has become a trend. In this intervention, a saline-soaked gauze pad is placed in the mother’s vagina and removed shortly before the C-section. After the birth, the baby’s mouth and body is swabbed with the vaginal fluids on the gauze.
A small study conducted in February 2016 study suggests it may be possible to mimic the microbiome exposure of vaginal birth in babies born via ceseran section. Researchers looked at 18 infants, seven born vaginally and 11 via C-section. Of the 11 delivered by C-section, vaginal seeding was used on four babies. A month after birth, the microbiomes of the four babies who received vaginal seeding more closely resembled those of the infants who were delivered vaginally than the microbiomes of those who were not exposed to their mothers’ vaginal flora.
However, although these results suggest that vaginal seeding may change the composition of the microbiome, more research is needed to know whether it is truly the same as vaginal birth. Therefore, larger studies need to be conducted and the babies need to be followed for years in order to know if vaginal seeding really makes a difference in their health.
Another reason to think twice about doing this procedure yourself is that the women in the study were screened for “bad” bacteria (i.e. infections) and were given antibacterials as required. Bacteria such as group B Streptococcus and chlamydia, and viruses such as herpes simplex virus can be dangerous for a newborn and can lead to serious infections resulting in lifelong health issues.
Aside from vaginal seeding, what are other ways to promote the newborn microbiome?
- Delaying a baby’s first bath for 12 hours
- Skin-to-skin contact in the operating room immediately after birth
- Using linens from home
- Avoiding unnecessary antibiotics
Of these methods, breastfeeding may be the most effective. We know that infants who are breastfed are at lower risk for developing health problems such as allergies, eczema, asthma, and diabetes – many of the same issues vaginal seeding attempts to prevent. We recommend breastfeeding for baby’s first year, but we understand this is not possible for every mom.
Talk to your physician about what you may be able to do to help in the development of your baby’s microbiome should a C-section be needed.