Bugs and guts

July 18, 2010 at 9:29 pm

I’ve been wanting to post about birth and healthy guts for a while now. Years ago I read an article that had a profound impact on me. It was Jeff Leach’s “C-sections, breastfeeding, and bugs for your baby.” His piece changed the way I viewed the birth canal. Cesareans aren’t just another way to give birth. Being born through an incision bypasses an extremely important step in the birth process–being colonized by the “base population” of the mother’s vaginal and fecal microflora. Following birth, breastfeeding continues the transfer of healthy microflora (probiotics) from the mother to the infant. Jeff Leach explains:

Studies have shown that at one month of age, both breast-fed and formula-fed infants possess bifidobacterium but population densities in bottle-fed infants is one-tenth that of breast-fed infants. The presence of a healthy and robust population of bifidobacterium throughout the first year or two of life contributes significantly to the child’s resistance to infection and overall development of defense systems – not to mention the physical development of the intestinal system in general. Aside from the substances secreted by these specific bacteria that are known inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria, they also work to make the intestinal environment of the infant more acidic, creating an additional barrier against invading pathogens. In short, breast-fed babies are sick less, are less fussy, have fewer and shorter duration of bouts of diarrhea, and have more frequent – and softer – bowel movements. (source)

Cesareans can save lives, but they also put babies at increased risk for infections, allergies, asthma, intestinal problems, and future health problems. When there is an absence of breastmilk, those potential problems can become exacerbated.

What are the best ways to ensure a healthy and strong population of gut microflora for your baby?

IMG_7054* Give birth vaginally.
* Keep baby and mother together immediately following birth (to prevent the colonization of harmful bacteria, especially when giving birth in the hospital).
* Breastfeed as soon as possible following birth and frequently thereafter.
* Consume probiotics (in foods or supplements) yourself during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
* Avoid giving your infant antibiotics, if possible.
* Give birth in a location far-removed from harmful bacteria, if possible.

I was delighted (not long after giving birth to my son at home) to discover a study whose results indicated: “Term infants who were born vaginally at home and were breastfed exclusively seemed to have the most ‘beneficial’ gut microbiota (highest numbers of bifidobacteria and lowest numbers of C difficile and E coli)” (Penders, J, et al, Factors influencing the composition of the intestinal microbiota in early infancy). I wasn’t surprised by those findings one bit. It has been informative and eye-opening to see how much impact the events following birth can have.

The more I learn, the more convinced I am that what happens during and after birth matters A LOT. Do you think you baby’s postpartum gut microflora had an impact on his/her behavior or health short-term or long-term?

Related links:

Allergies, Asthma, and Eczema: Response to Disturbance of the Microbiota of the Newborn Gut

The potential for probiotics to prevent bacterial vaginosis and preterm labor

Improved appetite of pregnant rats and increased birth weight of newborns (following probiotic feeding)

Probiotics during pregnancy, postpartum, breastfeeding, and their impact on immunity

Probiotics in infants for prevention of allergic disease and food hypersensitivity

Could the way we give birth be changing us as a species?

Microbirth documentary film (forthcoming, see below)