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The role of bacteria in pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding

Good bacteria is having a moment. While still in the early stages, some interesting research is showing that microbiota on the skin and in the gut can play a key role in maintaining good health.

In the United States the National Institutes of Health Common Fund’s Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is one of several international efforts to study the microbial communities in and on our bodies, and the affect these have on human health. Microbiota are being studied across a range of areas – from mental health and obesity, to skin conditions such as eczema.

One key part of this research is looking at the role of microbial communities (or microbiome) in pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Pregnancy can change a woman’s gut microbiota, which may then transfer to the baby via the placenta through the blood stream. Healthy intestinal bacteria plays a key role in the development of a baby’s immune system and gut (although the mechanisms for this are still unclear). For that reason, it is not only nutritionists touting the benefits of fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi, increasingly pregnant women are being encouraged to increase their intake of probiotic foods to encourage a healthy microbiome during pregnancy.

Studies are also looking at the role of vaginal and faecal bacteria in birth. Differences have been shown between the microbiome of babies born vaginally compared to caesarean section. There are also differences in the microbiota of babies who are breastfed exclusively rather than formula fed.  Scientists speculate that these differences may explain the increased risk of certain diseases for babies born by caesarean section or those that are formula fed. One study found that babies born vaginally and then breastfed exclusively had more beneficial gut microbiota. Research is currently being undertaken into ‘seeding’ or using vaginal swabs applied to the mouth, face and body of babies born via caesarean section. I am seeing more of this in my work as a midwife. Early results suggest this leads to the babies developing a microbiome similar to that of babies born vaginally. If you give birth by caesarean section talk to your obstetrician, doctor, or midwife about vaginal swabbing and seeding microbiota. You can also consider this when looking at your birth plan.

There is also some research to suggest that probiotics might be useful for babies who suffer from colic. From my own difficult experience with my youngest son who suffered from colic I am very keen to see how this research progresses.

Happily the existing recommendations for pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding support healthy microbial communities in babies and pregnant women. These recommendations include:

  • Minimising stress during pregnancy, which can affect gut bacteria.
  • Eating a healthy diet during pregnancy including plenty of vegetables, of which some can be fermented (did someone say midnight pickle craving?!)
  • Avoiding alcohol while pregnant.
  • Skin-to-skin contact immediately following birth.
  • Delayed bathing of the baby after birth, and then avoiding harsh cleansers when the baby is bathed.
  • Exclusive breastfeeding wherever possible, and the use of formula containing probiotics where breastfeeding is not possible.
  • Judicious use of antibiotics in pregnancy and during birth.

This is a fascinating area of health research. If you would like to know more about the role of microbiota in pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding book in your private appointment with me by visiting childbirtheducation.com.au


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