While it may not be self-evident, NOT all bacteria are created equal. Like good cop-bad cop, there are good bacteria and bad bacteria. In fact, this discussion has recently become relevant to a different conversation, namely, the pros and cons of vaginal delivery vs. cesarean section (c-section) delivery. Vaginal delivery introduces the newborn to vaginal fluids which help develop a healthy newborn microbiome (the collection of microscopic organisms which live on and in us).
These microorganisms exist on the skin, in the mouth and saliva, in the eyes, and in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is believed that many of these organisms, especially ones in the GI tract, contribute to healthy gut flora and function. In other words, exposure to the mother’s vaginal fluid, bacteria and all, helps develop a healthy newborn microbiome. Furthermore, it helps develop the neonatal immune system, prevents growth of negative bacteria, and produces certain vitamins.
Babies delivered via c-section are deprived of the maternal vaginal fluid along with its corresponding health benefits. Furthermore, c-section delivery is often accompanied by antibiotic usage which may also interfere with healthy infant microbiome development. In fact, it has been hypothesized that the recent rise in childhood asthma, immune diseases, and obesity may be associated with the increased rate of c-section, which nowadays is approximately one in three births nationally.
This has led researchers to explore the field of vaginal seeding, the artificial introduction of maternal vaginal fluid to the infant’s mouth, nose, or skin. This exposes the baby to the same bacteria he or she would have encountered through a vaginal delivery. This progressive and creative solution is still in its initial stages, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) is recommending, “Ladies, don’t try this at home.” In fact, they only recommend undergoing the process as part of an IRB approved clinical trial. The reason for this is because they still lack adequate research to support this procedure routinely. It is still unclear if the benefits outweigh the risk of exposing the infant to pathogens or other dangerous maternal bacteria.
However, it won’t be long before we have more data, and clinical trials are well underway. In fact, microbiologist Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello’s pilot study compared the microbiomes of infants born vaginally with those of infants who were delivered via c-section followed by vaginal seeding. Dominguez-Bello found that the microbiomes of both groups appeared very similar after one week. This is promising, and longer-term studies with larger sample sizes will determine if vaginal seeding will become par for the course within the c-section community.
To learn more about this fascinating research, I encourage you to listen to Dr. Aviva Romm’s interview of Dr. Dominguez-Bello. Dr. Romm is a physician, a midwife, and an herbalist with over thirty five years of experience. She has an amazing website replete with valuable information, including her blog and podcasts. This is the link to her website, and this is the link to her interview. I hope you find this information as exciting as I do!
Dominguez-Bello MG, De Jesus-Laboy KM, Shen N, Cox LM, Amir A, Gonzalez A, et al. Partial restoration of the microbiota of cesarean-born infants via vaginal microbial transfer. Nat Med 2016;22:250–3.