During and directly after birth, a newborn baby’s body is colonized for the first time by germs. If the baby is born vaginally, these germs are largely microbes from inside the mother’s own body, which have long been recognized as beneficial. But for babies born via caesarean section, the germs are almost exclusively those of its new, heretofore alien environment.
Scientists have theorized for a while now that babies born via C-section — in the U.S. that number has risen to nearly 1 in 3 over the last 30 years — could benefit from being wiped down with germs from their mother’s vagina directly after birth. The first significant research on that subject, published Monday by an associate professor at NYU, backs up that theory.
The small but significant study looked at 18 babies born in Puerto Rico — 11 via C-section and seven vaginally — in their first weeks of life. Of the 11 C-section babies, four were swabbed in a 15-second procedure over various parts of their bodies with fluids from their mother one to two minutes after birth. Over the next month, 1,500 samples were taken from the 18 babies. The early results showed that the unswabbed C-section babies carried bacteria from their environment — the delivery room — in the days after birth, while the swabbed babies resembled the vaginally delivered ones. Gut bacteria was lower in all of the C-section babies than in those born vaginally, but as the month progressed, all of the babies began to even out, showing similar bacteria patterns in their mouths and on their skin. The results are not definitive but they are extremely promising.
It’s thought that the vaginal microbial exposure for infants can have long-ranging effects, and that babies born via C-section can be more likely to suffer from allergies, diabetes, obesity, and asthma. Presumably, the procedure could become standard practice for babies who need to be born via C-section, even as the medical community in the U.S. seeks to reduce its very high numbers of the procedure.
A larger project to further study the effects of vaginal microbe colonization on newborns is currently under way at NYU.