I’ve seen multiple recent stories in the news about a “groundbreaking” new way that researchers are hoping to improve gut bacteria and immune health in cesarean babies. In short, they are talking about a way to mimic the natural gut bacteria transfer that happens during the birthing process with microbial wipes (I wrote about this last year in my gentle cesarean post).
Microbes During Birth?
When I first saw the reports, I had to shake my head and laugh while simultaneously filing the info under “things I wish I’d known 6 years ago,” and “things that nature has known forever.” I never thought I’d end up having a c-section (until Placenta Previa changed my plans) and until I had one, I hadn’t bothered to research much about them.
If I had, I might have stumbled upon some of the fascinating research covered in the movie Microbirth and reported by researchers that cesarean babies and babies birthed vaginally have much different gut bacteria. Research is showing that when a baby passes through the birth canal, important bacteria is transferred from mother to baby. This bacteria helps form the baby’s immune system and seeds the gut.
This makes sense intuitively, as there is a lot of research about the potential for certain strains of bacteria, like the Group B Strep bacteria, to be passed to baby during birth and the consequences this can have. As the vagina is a bacteria-rich environment, it seems only logical that other bacteria, especially beneficial ones, are passed on as well.
What Happens in A C-Section?
I should preface by reiterating that I have had a c-section that saved my life and my son’s life, and I am extremely grateful for it. At the same time, as any mom who has had one can attest, the birthing process is quite different during a c-section.
This is logical, and certainly there are many cases that c-sections are medically needed and life-saving. At the same time, the normal bacterial transfer doesn’t happen during the cesarean for babies as it does during a vaginal birth.
The baby is born in a (hopefully) sterile environment and removed through the lower part of the mother’s abdomen without making contact with the birth canal in the same way. Of course, some babies may get exposure, especially if a mom’s water has broken before the surgery. We also now know that some of this bacterial transfer happens in-utero (while we once thought babies gut’s were sterile until birth).
So while a baby born vaginally gets almost all of his or her gut bacteria from mom, a baby born via c-section picks up bacteria from the environment and other people he or she comes into contact with when first exiting the womb.
We’ve known for a while that there is a difference in gut bacteria between cesarean babies and babies born vaginally, but we are only beginning to understand the implications of these differences as researchers are now finding science-based ways to help bridge this gap.
This is the part I wish I’d known before I had a c-section. My son was our only child to have allergies (a dairy allergy) and skin issues. While we were thankfully able to help him reverse most of these struggles, it is a battle we may not have had to fight if I’d known what this research is finding, that there are ways to help encourage this microbial transfer during c-sections.
Transferring a Mother’s Microbes to Cesarean Babies
Stay with me on this one… there is a practical and very logical way to help transfer mom’s microbes to cesarean babies and this is what the emerging research is showing. Something as simple as using a piece of gauze that has been in mom’s birth canal to swab the baby after birth may have far reaching benefits for cesarean babies.
Yes, this research is suggesting that we should use gauze that has been in mom’s vagina to wipe down baby’s face, mouth, eyes and skin immediately after birth. No, this is not gross. In fact, this was suggested in the movie Microbirth over a year ago, and I also wrote about it in this post.
While the research makes it sound fancy, the reality is that while we are finally studying this in a clinical setting, doctors and midwives have been trying this for years with good results. And it isn’t as complicated as it sounds. The fancy “microbe wipe” is just a piece of gauze that contains mom’s beneficial bacteria, and this one small step could make a big difference in baby’s health!
In fact, as some studies have shown the potentially higher risk of obesity, immune problems, diabetes, asthma and allergies in babies born via c-section, this research could have dramatic benefits. Especially as c-section rates continue to rise far beyond the World Health Organization’s recommended 15% (to as high as 70% in some places), finding ways to create this microbial transfer will become more and more important.
The Study: Transferring Microbes to Cesarean Babies
Though this initial study is small, it is so encouraging to see this link being studied at all and I’m hopeful that the positive results will lead to many more studies.
In this sample study, Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, an associate professor of medicine at New York University and lead author of the report, studied 18 babies, 7 born vaginally and 11 via cesarean.
Four of the babies born via c-section were swabbed with a piece of gauze that had been cultured with the mother’s vaginal bacteria. For this study, sterile gauze that had been moistened with a saline solution was inserted into mom’s birth canal. It was removed as the cesarean began and used to stimulate the transfer during birth, though other researchers have considered the possibility of not using the saline and using a dry gauze instead.
Nurses were instructed to wipe the baby’s whole body, including mouth, skin, genitals and rectum with the wipe. While the study was small and the transfer quick, the beauty of the study was in the follow up testing.
Dr. Dominguez-Bello’s team tracked the babies’ microbes with over 1,500 samples from the babies and their mothers during the first month. The results were fascinating:
- In the c-section babies who were not swabbed, they found ambient bacteria from the delivery room itself and from other people who were present in the delivery room.
- In the babies born vaginally, they found many of the same strains as were present in the mother’s vagina, skin and other parts of the body.
- In the babies born via c-section who were swabbed “closely resembled vaginally delivered babies.”
The researchers did note that the gut bacteria in all babies born via c-section were still less diverse than those born vaginally, but the mere fact that the swabbed babies had many of the same strains is encouraging.
This study also doesn’t take into account the vast differences that can occur, even in babies born vaginally, depending on how long the baby spent in the birth canal, if the mother or baby received antibiotics, the mother’s gut and vaginal bacteria and a variety of other factors. Also, as antibiotics are given routinely during c-section it is not possible to adjust for this variable in a small study like this.
Potential Problems with This Study…
This initial study was very small and while the results were promising, they aren’t big enough to be statistically significant. The lead researcher on this study noted that a much larger study is underway at New York University with almost 100 mothers participating and with a follow-up period of a year. Hopefully, these larger studies will encourage hospital-based research and more widespread experimentation with this type of transfer.
Another potential problem that I see with this study is that all c-section moms are routinely given antibiotics during birth, and the study even mentions that this was done as a precaution. Unfortunately:
As we know, the antibiotics affect the mother’s resident microbes, inhibiting susceptible bacteria and selecting for resistance. The closer the dose is to birth, the greater the possibility that she will pass a skewed population of microbes to her baby. (source)
This could partially explain why the babies who were swabbed in the study still had different bacteria than the babies born vaginally, though the study doesn’t say whether the babies born vaginally received antibiotics or not.
I found it somewhat funny that for now, the researchers are not recommending that mother’s (or doctors or midwives) attempt this on their own, since there is “a risk they could inadvertently transmit dangerous bacteria to their newborns.”
I can understand the researchers’ need to protect themselves and to not encourage any procedure until it has been studied more in depth. At the same time, this is the process that happens naturally in every vaginal delivery. Ironically, I’ve had friends and doula clients ask their doctors to do this microbe swab after a cesarean and several were met with disgust and outright refusal from the doctors because “that is disgusting.” Yet, it happens during birth all the time. Vaginal birth certainly isn’t sterile or clean or any less “disgusting” (by their definition).
The researchers on the study said that they hope to do more extensive studies and follow these babies for several years to see if the transfer can make a difference in longer term outcomes like asthma, allergies and obesity and that “they would try to develop a probiotic that contains the specific microbes that babies need.”
Personally, I hope that researchers and doctors will work to lower our drastic c-section rates (over 40% in my state) to closer to the WHO recommendation of 15% (which would reduce the need for these types of interventions in the first place).
After watching Microbirth and reading additional research, I’d do the microbe swab myself if I ever had another cesarean. I know quite a few doctors and midwives who are testing a similar procedure with their patients and it is one that I hope many more women will ask their health professionals about and consider as more research emerges.
What do you think? Fascinating? Disgusting? Would you do it?
Discussion (57 Comments)
I did it! But unfortunately I used a big cotton swab and it had really dried out a lot by the time we tried to apply it. Not sure what really made it to the babe. The other thing worth reminding mamas is that they’ll need to do the swab or gauze before the c-section because antibiotics will wipe out your flora!
Amazon…CytoFlora is an eyedropper probiotic that many Autistic parents use..very helpful. I use it daily in addition to another probiotic. I can give a few drops in water to my cats/birds also. The CytoFlora..can put in any drink he has. It is expensive, but lasts almost a year. Probiotics while pregnant would be good. Probiotics help convert T4 to T3 for thyroid hormone by 20%…raising oxygen burning in mitochondria.
Thanks for the info on C section births I believe my youngest grandson has been impacted. He is high function autism and has sensory/ food issues so probiotics are not easily administered but I have tried to get kids probiotics into him, occasionally successful.
Also do you have a body lotion/recipe with oils and Shea butter?
I hope this isn’t too gross of a question. If a mother has had a long, chronic history of yeast infections and gives birth vaginally during this time, does the baby pick up a yeast infection? And if it’s a c- section, should swabbing be avoided?
Yes…kids can get yeast infections. If the mom had yeast/bad bacteria more than good they may get that. I did take a probiotic before pregnancy and I don’t know what kind of bacteria I gave to my kids..not good I think. Maybe swab when healthier perhaps.
This is so fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing awesome material! I’m loving it! Mind sharing your thoughts/steps on building good gut flora for baby after csection?
If I had it to do over again, I would take several different high-quality probiotics during pregnancy, do the microbe swab after and continue taking the probiotics while nursing. I’d also make sure, if at all possible, that baby only came in contact with me or my husband in the hospital. After that point, I’d just keep up with the probiotics, give broth as a first food and nurse if possible.
What if you cant nurse? My first child who was born c-section, didn’t nurse directly as he wouldn’t latch so I ended up supplementing. He was from 2.5 months until 1 year on formula.
The formula didn’t have probiotics either. Only when he was about 9 months I started giving him yogurt which there he would get the probiotics from.
He is little over 5 now. Has yogurt every day.
I never knew about this gaze back then…If I had know I would probably inquire with my OB more. I wish these things are mentioned and mom’s are more educated when they are pregnant. So far, THANK GOD, both my kids who are both c-section don’t have any allergies, asthma or anything other than just normal colds.
Does this mean all kids born c-section will either get allergies, asthma etc? I hope not!
I am curious about vaginal birth with antibiotic use… I had a vaginal birth, but tested positive for GBS and so was given antibiotics during labor (for hours and hours… It was a long labor). Would my son have still picked up *some* good bacteria?
I hope I don’t have to use this, but good to know! Maybe I’ll sneak in some gauze, just in case…
I wonder if this would also apply to babies born en-caul? I know it’s really rare, but I just saw a mom in my birth group had it happen!
You maybe bleeding after giving birth..maybe bloody to use the gauze, but a good probiotic may help the mom/baby.
What about those of us that had a vaginal births but were given antibiotics during birth to combat strep b? I tested positive for step b during my 2nd pregnancy, took the antibiotics during birth so my daughter didn’t get infected with strep b. 3 days later she had GI problems unlike my first. Eventually I found a good pribiotic for her that really helped with her upset tummy. She is now 2 and is always sick (unlike my 5 yr old). If I have more kids, I’m wondering if I should do the gauze trick even if I birth vaginally? Does this make sense?
Unfortunately, they don’t really know yet what happens with antibiotics during labor and how that affects the transfer. The best case scenario would be GBS negative in the future (here is the protocol I’ve used the last couple of times to avoid having it). They don’t really know if the swab offers any additional benefit to babies born vaginally, and there is some concern about passing on GBS if a mom has tested positive.
Fascinating!! I am intrigued by this!
I know the health of my c section babies was VASTLY inferior to my vbac babies. So this makes sense to me.
I know my current doctor would think I was crazy if I brought this up. It would be nice if this is something the mom could just do on her own but I’ve had a c section so I know how limited you are in doing anything physically.
I know several moms who have done this themselves. What they did was use gauze before going into the hospital, kept it in a sterile glass jar and their hubbies swabbed baby. They asked that the baby be put on mom’s chest immediately and that dad could do skin to skin while mom recovered. Dad was able to swab without anyone even noticing. I also had a friend who used a hospital blanket from a previous pregnancy for the swab and no one batted an eye because it looked like the other blankets.
I am a Labor & Delivery nurse who works in a hospital where this is offered to our patients. Ideally, it is done by mom prior to receiving antibiotics for her c-section.
Thank you so much for commenting on this subject, as it is something that I’ve wondered about for years. I’ve had 6 cesarean’s and battled dairy intolerance with all of them, asthma with one, excema with 3 and recurrent yeast/thrush in almost all of them as newborns. This is a very real concern with cesarean delivered babies and I wish I’d known about this option 6 children ago; however, now I’m armed with the knowledge for any future deliveries that I may be blessed with.
Dairy issues can be due to gluten hurting the tips of intestinal villi so lactase to digest lactose is missing. Some also have problems with Casein or the fat in dairy. Celiac people may be hurt by gluten/dairy/soy/sugar/GMO etc. Asthma/ezcema can be due to gluten/hidden gluten. Gluten is wheat/barley/rye…oats/corn. Eating sugar/starch/carbs may grow yeast. Eating fermentated food may help and taking strong probiotics. I need no gluten/dairy/soy/sugar/GMO….take vitamins/good oils/minerals…probiotic…LDN (helps block hidden gluten) and detox (before preganncy..not during).
Thank you for commenting on this research as I just recently read about it in the news. I’m am so hoping my next birth will be vaginal but my daughter was born c-section. What did you do to reverse your son’s allergies? My daughter is 2, and we have given her probiotics since she was 6 months and she still has a milk protein allergy along with some skin issues.
And yes! I would definitly do this if I knew what I know now!
We used the GAPS diet for almost a year while doing intensive probiotics and other supplements.
I would love to know more about thiso help my daughter!
It is very specific to the person, but for him, we used:
-Bio Kult and Prescript Assist probiotics (high doses)
-Lots of broth
-zinc and magnesium
-Vitamin D and K drops
-others for very short periods of time based on lab results, especially certain b-vitamins
Would you mind giving some specific direction as to how I could help my 4 year old, born by c-section, to improve his gut bacterial population? I know that you indicated that it’s very specific to each individual, but I’d love to be able to test him so as to provide the proper supplements. I just have no idea where to start to get child specific instruction.
I’m also interested in this. Did your pediatrician do the lab work? I am uncertain how to get the data I need and how to tailor a health plan to an individual. Thanks so much for your help with this!
Thank you! What other supplements did you use?
CytoFlora on Amazon can be put in drinks…has an eye dropper. Amazon also has some chewable vitamins. Hair tests/Genova tests may help for minerals/vitamins/heavy metals. Electrodermal testing may help. No gluten/dairy/soy/sugar/GMO…taking vitamins/good oils/minerals…probiotic…detoxing helps me. If he can have yogurt it may help with live cultures. Best wishes.
Dairy issues may not be due to the good bacteria, but due to Celiac where gluten may also hurt and soy/sugar/GMO. Leaky gut maybe due to gluten/GMO/antibiotics etc. Taking different kinds of strong probiotics help me. Antibiotics may hurt the gut lining/lower the immune system and hurt mitochondria. 100% no gluten/hidden gluten may help. Food with a label may have hidden gluten/GMO/sugar/dairy/soy/chemicals etc.
Hair tests show mineral levels and heavy metals. Electrodermal testing may show many things about health. Genova tests can be for allergies/hormones/vitamins. There are chewable vitamins for kids on Amazon. CytoFlora probiotic is good…eye dropper kind. Adult dose and be reduced by weight for kids, but tests may show if they need a certain supplement. I only used a kids multiple when my kids were young and yogurt (live culture) until they were older and could say if something helped them or not. My kids are now young adults and need to be 100% gluten free, but are only 1/2 way there. Gluten/GMO may hurt the gut lining so less nutrients/good oils absorb. Coenyzmated B vitamins and fish oil and more are great help for them.
Below is what my young adult kids are doing and more now which helps them. A small child….you may not figure out everything they need. Try to get it in food maybe…fruit etc. Veg…can be made into soup. Cruciferous family may need to be heated so it doesn’t block thyroid:
What helps my family…self/young adult:
.No gluten/dairy/soy/sugar/GMO and vitamins/good oils, LDN and detoxing help me. Vit D3 5000IU, zinc 50mg if detoxing, 2000mg fish oil , 20000mg evening primrose oil. 2000 mg lecithin, Phosphatidylserine/DMAE, krill oil, CLA, Coenzyme Q10, Rhodiola, Mg citrate 400mg, Vit C, 5000mcg of biotin, Nature’s Plus- Source of life multiple, HCl and enzymes with meals, dairy free probiotic, Vit B12 methylcobalamin shot/spray/under the tongue kind/intrinsic factor kind, MTHF folate, coenyzme Q10, rhodiola, may help brain/body/thyroid/depression/immune system and more. Gluten is wheat/barley/rye..oats may act like gluten with avenin. GMO corn/soy/canola oil may hurt. Amour thyroid maybe needed since gluten may made antibodies to the thyroid. Coenzymated B vitamins far from synthetic kind make make me calm.
Sunlight (helps the immune system and helps to heal the gut lining),exercise, organic food, good water..not tap water, cooking by scratch pure food….. no food in a box/bag/premade/label/restaurant which may help avoid hidden gluten. Certified gluten free food may have 20ppm of gluten…too much. Nuts not sold in the shell/meat basting/some spices may have hidden gluten and lotion/make up etc. One restaurant cooks special for me…rice/veg/tea/extra mushrooms (no meat since the woks may have MSG/gluten in them).
EDTA/DMPS IV chelations from an Alternative doctor, 600mg of cilantro, organic sulfur, Now brand- Detox support, Far Infrared Sauna and more may help detox. Hair tests show good minerals and heavy metals. Heavy metals can block thyroid and other chemical reactions in the body/brain.
LDN may help block hidden gluten/heal the gut lining and help the immune system, but the Celiac diet is still needed. 100% no gluten..no hidden or microscopic gluten may help. Cutting back on gluten or cheating by eating gluten hurts the immune system. It may take 1 1/2 months to heal the gut lining after getting hidden gluten.
Amour thyroid has some T3 and Calcitonin. Synthroid is only T4..may not convert to T3. Zn/Se/enough iron/strong probiotic may help convert T4 to T3 for thyroid.
Alternative doctors/chiropractors/acupuncturists and more may help with health/vitamins etc.