C-section babies get microbes missed at birth

Researchers swab C-section babies with their mothers’ vaginal fluid to restore healthy bacteria

The significance of the bond between mother and child may run deeper than we previously knew, right down to the microbes that live on and inside all of us. Babies pick up healthy gut bacteria only as they pass through their mother’s birth canal. Babies delivered by C-section don’t receive this maternal bacteria and end up with a different set, including those from the hospital’s environment. A number of recent studies have found that babies born via C-section are more likely to develop immune and metabolic disorders such as asthma, food allergies and obesity later in life, possibly due to not receiving their mother’s vaginal microbiome.

Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York restored healthy microbes in C-section babies by swabbing them with microbes from their mothers’ vaginas. Published in the journal Nature Medicine this month, the study entitled “Partial restoration of the microbiota of cesarean-born infants via vaginal microbial transfer” tested this method on 18 mothers, seven of whom had vaginal births and 11 of whom had C-section births. Four of the C-section babies were swabbed with their mothers’ vaginal fluids.

The results of the study showed that C-section babies swabbed with their mothers’ vaginal fluids developed microbial communities more similar to those born vaginally. In addition, bacteria that play a role in the immune system, including Lactobacillus and Bacteroids, were found in swabbed babies but not in untreated C-section babies.

It’s too early to tell whether people born by C-section should be concerned about not receiving their mothers’ vaginal microbes during birth. The study has yet to be able to determine whether swabbing would lead to any long-term changes or how a baby’s healthy gut microbiome relates to its mother’s vaginal microbiome. The study’s researchers are currently conducting further research to show that the procedure is indeed beneficial. This study, nonetheless, improves the understanding of the importance of bacteria in our health.

The method started by inserting a sterile gauze into the mother’s vagina an hour before the surgery. The gauze was removed a few minutes prior to caesarean surgery, and was swabbed onto the mouth, body and anus of the newborn baby. Within the first month, the researchers took more than 1,500 microbial samples from different body sites of each baby to examine the development of their microbiomes and to help answer the general question of how microbes acquired during early development influence the baby’s health later on.

The mothers in the study were screened for harmful bacteria as well as viral and fungal infections before delivery to avoid the risks of transferring pathogenic microbes to their babies. As a result, researchers of the study advise people not to use this method without consulting their doctors first, especially if the mother is diabetic. Diabetic mothers have high blood sugar in their systems, making them more at risk of urinary tract infections caused by unhealthy bacteria.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 26 per cent of Canadian births are C-sections, which is approximately twice the rate recommended by World Health Organization. This study may have important implications in lowering the risk of chronic disorders among babies born by C-section.

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