Studies increasingly show a healthy microbiome — the collection of bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi, and viruses stored in all humans — can impact our overall health. Research now suggests connections between a healthy microbiome and lowered incidence of obesity, depression, diabetes, brain diseases, autism, and allergies. A small study out of NYU has even suggested that babies born via c-section rather than through the birth canal are at risk for health problems later in life.
This data has left some parents convinced that babies would be healthier if they were exposed to this vaginal bacteria if their babies were born via c-section. Now, mothers are taking part in a practice known as “vaginal seeding,” in which babies born via c-section are covered in the mother’s vaginal fluid.
“There’s an idea that babies who don’t go through the vaginal canal aren’t exposed to all the normal bacteria that live in a woman’s vagina,” says Dr. Kelly Culwell, an OBGYN and former medical officer at the World Health Organization. “And maybe, one of the purposes of going through the vaginal canal is being exposed to all this bacteria. So it kind of makes sense, but we really don’t have great data weighing out the benefits and harms.”
What is vaginal seeding?
“Vaginal seeding” is the process of covering a baby, born via cesarean section rather than via the birth canal, with vaginal fluid. Women will typically swab their vagina with gauze before giving birth, put this swab in a sterile jar, and then after the baby is born, distribute the fluid onto the baby’s skin and into their mouth.
How did this become popular?
Babies born during c-sections have been shown to have higher rates of allergies, asthma, obesity, and autoimmune diseases later in life. But now, some researchers, and mothers, believe that by reintroducing the bacteria that would have otherwise been present during a vaginal birth, they can decrease the risk of disease. “Having good gut flora is incredibly important to bolstering a baby’s immune system,” says Jennifer Payne, a mother who recently seeded her newborn. “It just made a lot of sense to me. I have celiac disease, so I am very aware of gut issues and wanted to do whatever I could to give my son a really healthy start in life.”
Why do many doctors advise against vaginal seeding?
Many doctors are concerned that this practice could infect babies with harmful bacteria. Group B streptococcus, is commonly found in a woman’s vagina during pregnancy and can cause pneumonia and meningitis in newborns. Women may also have chlamydia, gonorrhea, or herpes that could be passed unknowingly to the baby. “If women have Group B streptococcus in their vagina when they give birth vaginally, the baby can get really sick,” Culwell says. “A standard practice in OBGYN is to test women for this before they give birth, and if they have it they are treated with antibiotics. But if a woman was having a planned C-Section, she might not be tested for this group B strep, and then she would be swabbing it over the baby — it doesn’t make any sense.”
What do mothers who have seeded their babies say?
Mothers like Jennifer Payne say the process was straightforward, with Payne noting she would do it again. “My doctor knew I was planning to do the seeding so he did the Strep B test to make sure there weren’t any serious pathogens introduced. He let me know that this is not part of the hospital protocol so he couldn’t be formally involved,” Payne says. “The process was really easy. After my son was born I held him briefly, and then we did the swab. My older son is almost 4 and he was born by planned cesarean, and we didn’t do the vaginal seeding, and it is like night and day in terms of their immunity. My older son was sick during the winter for his first three years of life, but my younger son is very rarely sick and it is usually very mild.”
What does the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say?
Currently, ACOG advises against vaginal seeding, because the risks of infecting infants with diseases are thought to outweigh the benefits. “With the increasing attention given to this concept in public media, providers are being faced with incorporating vaginal seeding into clinical practices,” ACOG wrote in a recent statement. “At this time, based on the lack of data about the safety and harms, and the potential for harm from transfer of pathogens associated with adverse neonatal outcomes, we recommend against the practice of vaginal seeding until better data are available establishing the safety and benefits of this practice.”