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C-Section Babies’ Immune System May Be Improved by Vaginal Microbial Transfer

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C-Section Babies’ Immune System May Be Improved by Vaginal Microbial Transfer

Feb 25, 2016

Bacteria help build babies' immune systems. During a natural birth, the passage through the birth canal allows mom’s bacteria to colonize the baby. But what about babies born by cesarean section? Data suggest C-section babies may have more autoimmune diseases such as asthma and type 1 diabetes. So should C-section babies be gauzed with mom’s vaginal bacteria during the first few minutes of life? Dr. Kirtly Jones talks about this hot topic for moms-to-be and whether or not she thinks vaginal microbial transfer should be on the list of concerns going into labor.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: Good bacteria and bad bacteria. We are being bombarded by information about the bacteria with which we share our bodies, but what about our babies? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from Obstetrics and Gynecology at University Healthcare, and this is Babies and Good Bacteria on The Scope.

Announcer: Covering all aspects of women's health, this is The Seven Domains of Women's Health with Dr. Kirtly Jones on The Scope.

Dr. Jones: We have previously talked about how babies benefit from exposure to different kinds of bacteria. Babies who have a wider exposure to bacteria may have less obesity, diabetes, asthma and autoimmune disease. So it is okay to put your baby on the floor, and it is okay, mostly, to let your dog lick your baby.

Now, a baby in the uterus the day before it is born is living in a mostly sterile environment. The passage through the mom's birth canal during labor allows mom's bacteria to colonise the baby, and breastfeeding allows some more.

The vaginal bacteria in healthy pregnant women are largely lactobacillus, which is a bacteria that can help babies metabolize milk, but what about babies that are born by cesarean section? There are some data to suggest that babies born by cesarean, and that is about 30% of babies in this country, may have more autoimmune diseases like asthma, type 1 diabetes and other conditions, and food allergies than babies that were squeezed out through the mom's vagina, especially babies that were born via cesarean, without moms having been in labor for a while.

Okay, so it isn't a huge difference in which babies get some diseases, but if you were planning a caesarean, could you do something about it? A short report has just been published in the Journal of Nature Medicine suggesting that you can. This was a very small study of 18 moms and their babies at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. Seven babies were born vaginally and 11 babies were born by elective cesarean section without labor.

Four women who were scheduled to have a caesarean had a bit of gauze put in their vagina, then removed and put in a sterile container before the cesarean was performed. A few minutes after the babies were born they were dried off and four of the babies had gauze wiped over their skin. Eleven other babies did not. Over the following month, the moms and their babies had their microbiome, their bacterial ecosystem, assessed. The babies who were treated with the gauze had skin bacteria more like their moms and more like the babies born vaginally. The babies born from cesarean who did not have the gauze treatment had bacteria more like that from the hospital environment, and less like their mom's vaginal environment.

The babies who had the gauze treatment weren't exactly like babies born vaginally in that their gut bacteria weren't as varied and abundant as babies born vaginally. This could be for several reasons. One is the fact that moms getting a cesarean often get antibiotics to decrease the risk of infection in their cesarean incision or their uterus. Infection is relatively common in cesarean incisions, and that is why we give women antibiotics routinely who are having a cesarean.

So lots goes on in labor that involves moms exchanging bacteria with their babies. Now we don't know if these babies with the gauze treatment will grow up to be healthier or not. And we don't know if there are some moms with bacteria or viruses in their vagina that shouldn't be shared with their babies.

A bigger study is ongoing right now at New York Hospital. However, this idea is being disseminated in mothers' blogs and magazines, and women are asking for it. The professional medical organizations haven't recommended it yet, and I am pretty sure I would add the statement, "Don't do this at home," but if you're interested you should ask your OB.

There is so much to think about when you're going to be a new mom, and this wouldn't be number one on my list, but it is something to know as we learn more and more about the world in which we live and into which we bring our babies.

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