by Toni Harman, MICROBIRTH Filmmaker & Founder
When I was pregnant 14 years ago, my childbirth educator gave me two things. Knowledge and confidence. I felt fully prepared to give birth at home, and also to exclusively breastfeed. I felt powerful. But, as can often happen, I ended up needing a C-section. When I struggled to breastfeed, I “topped up” with infant formula. I felt all my power was stripped away.
The Search for the “Missing Piece”
I felt something was missing from my antenatal preparation, so I went looking for answers. After spending 10 years interviewing top scientists and university professors for our films and courses, I believe I have found this “missing piece.” This “missing piece” can help empower expectant parents, informing their birth and feeding choices. What is it? A simple understanding of the critical microscopic processes happening during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
What are These Critical Microscopic Processes?
Everyone has a unique microbiome. This is a microscopic ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms that live on and in us. The vast majority of these microorganisms are either harmless or actually beneficial to human health. Emerging research suggests how a baby is born and fed affects the early development of the infant microbiome with knock-on effects for the immune system.
Very Simply Explained
The mother passes her beneficial microorganisms to her baby during vaginal birth. Special sugars in her breast milk feed those beneficial microorganisms. Fed by those special sugars, the beneficial microorganisms quickly grow in the baby’s gut. These beneficial microorganisms help optimally train the infant immune system, thus helping protect the baby’s long-term health.
What Happens with C-section?
Research suggests that if born by C-section, a baby may not receive all the mother’s beneficial vaginal and gut microorganisms. This may mean the baby has an “altered” gut microbiome compared to if born vaginally. (Stokholm J et al., 2020). This altered microbiome may mean the baby’s immune system is not optimally trained, with potential long-term consequences. For example, C-section can increase the risk of immune and metabolic disorders (Renz et al., 2017). C-section has also been found to be associated with more than a doubled risk of asthma and allergies in later life (Stokholm J et al., 2020).
What Can Expectant Parents Do?
If expectant parents know about the infant microbiome EARLY in pregnancy, they can make diet and lifestyle changes during their pregnancy to best prepare their gut microbiome BEFORE birth. Expectant parents can also connect with lactation specialists to help them prepare for exclusive breastfeeding. Exclusive breastfeeding can help restore the infant gut microbiome if a baby is born by C-section, and exclusive breastfeeding can also lower the risk of infection in early life (Guo et al., 2020 and Liu Y. et al., 2019).
What Can You Do?
Knowledge about the infant microbiome can be both powerful and empowering, especially when given to parents EARLY in pregnancy. That’s why we have created Microbiome baby – a ready-made toolkit of evidence-based resources, plus full training, so you can simply explain the infant microbiome to parents. If you are interested in training to be a Microbiome Baby Approved Instructor, visit the website.
Stokholm J, Thorsen J, Blaser MJ, Rasmussen MA, Hjelmsø M, Shah S, Christensen ED, Chawes BL, Bønnelykke K, Brix S, Mortensen MS, Brejnrod A, Vestergaard G, Trivedi U, Sørensen SJ, Bisgaard H. Delivery mode and gut microbial changes correlate with an increased risk of childhood asthma. Sci Transl Med. 2020 Nov 11;12(569):eaax9929. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aax9929. PMID: 33177184. Renz, H., Holt, P. G., Inouye, M., Logan, A. C., Prescott, S. L., and Sly, P. D. 2017. An exposome perspective: early-life events and immune development in a changing world. J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 140, 24–40. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2017.05.015 Guo, C., Zhou, Q., Li, M. et al. Breastfeeding restored the gut microbiota in caesarean section infants and lowered the infection risk in early life. BMC Pediatr 20, 532 2020. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12887-020-02433-x Liu Y, Qin S, Song Y, et al. The Perturbation of Infant Gut Microbiota Caused by Cesarean Delivery Is Partially Restored by Exclusive Breastfeeding. Front Microbiol. 2019;10:598. Published 2019 Mar 26. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2019.00598
Toni Harman, MICROBIRTH Filmmaker & Founder
Toni Harman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author and digital course creator. Her documentary MICROBIRTH has been broadcast around the world and her books have been translated into multiple languages. To help childbirth educators better understand the infant microbiome, Toni has created an online school called MICROBIOME COURSES, now with over 34,000 health professionals enrolled as students. Toni has also created MICROBIOME BABY, a new ready-to-use toolkit of evidence-based resources that childbirth educators can use to explain the infant microbiome to parents.