Could your baby’s birth method impact their gut health?

According to research, babies born by Caesarean section have different gut bacteria from those born vaginally.

Could your baby's birth method have an impact on their gut health?
 Babies born by Caesarean section have different gut bacteria from those born vaginally. The verdict is still out for those delivered by a stork!

According to research, both the manner of birth and the early feeding of a newborn can significantly impact the bacterial composition of the infant’s gut. Why is the composition of a baby’s gut important? Because the accumulation of bacteria, primarily in the large intestine, develops after birth and after the initiation of eating and is connected to health problems later in life, including the likelihood of asthma, allergies and other immune disorders.“Babies are sterile in the womb, and the moment they are born is a moment when the immune system has a huge number of bacteria it’s presented with. The hypothesis is that that moment of birth is a thermostatic moment that sets the immune system for future life,” said Dr Nigel Field, a clinical associate professor at University College London. “C-section babies are more likely to have ‘opportunistic pathogens’, which are bacteria that can get into their bodies. Most of the time, these pathogens don’t do any harm to healthy people, but they can cause disease when the immune system isn’t working well, or they get into places they shouldn’t, like tissues or the bloodstream.” 

About the study suggests

The study looked at more than 100 six-week babies born at a gestational age of nearly 40 weeks. 70 babies were delivered vaginally and 32 via C-section. In the first six weeks of life, 70 were breastfed, 26 were given a combination of breastmilk and formula, and six were given formula solely.

By tracking these babies’ birth and feeding records, researchers discovered that those born vaginally had a different gut composition than those delivered through C-sections. There were also differences between breastfed newborns and those who received formula or formula and breastmilk mix.

The study is part of the project Baby Biome Study,  published in the journal Nature, which aims to follow thousands more newborns into childhood to understand the role birth mode plays in gut colonisation by microbes. In the near future, the study will also consider the impact that other factors, such as antibiotics and breastfeeding, have on gut microbiota and, consequently, in global health during life.

What is the long-term outlook?

There have been no long-term longitudinal investigations of the impact of early feeding strategies on the microbiome to date. Still, the study’s authors believe that early feeding methods may have long-term consequences on microbial community structure.

“Understanding the patterns of microbial colonisation of healthy infants’ digestive tracts is crucial for understanding the health implications of various modifiable early-life risk factors and exposures,” they concluded.

“To that end, we have detected detectable changes in microbial communities in newborns’ digestive tracts based on delivery style and food, with potential implications for both short- and long-term health.”

What should pregnant women do?

Although these findings are intriguing, doctors say they should not deter women from having a caesarean section. According to Dr Alison Wright, the vice president of The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a Caesarean is a life-saving procedure in many cases. It can be the right choice for a woman and her baby.