Vaginal seeding is a birthing trend growing in popularity. But could it do more harm than good?
Whether it’s a lotus birth (leaving the umbilical cord ‘uncut’) or doing a Kourtney Kardashian and eating your own placenta, birthing trends are only growing in popularity, with each one claiming to be more ‘natural’ for both mother and baby than the last.
The latest trend to hit the obstetrics and gynaecology scene is vaginal seeding. And no, it’s got nothing to do with getting pregnant (the seeding bit confused us at first, too) but all about taking steps to equip your baby with a strong immune system to fight off bugs and diseases throughout their life.
However, doctors are warning the practice could do a baby more harm than good.
Here’s everything you need to know about vaginal seeding:
1. What is it?
When a woman’s waters break, the baby is suddenly exposed to the mother’s vaginal microbes that wash over the child in the birth canal, coating its skin, and entering the baby’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth which are often swallowed and travel down into the gut.
It is widely believed that the ‘good’ bacteria help train the baby’s naive immune system (which has been shielded by the amniotic sac during pregnancy), teaching it to identify what bugs to tolerate and which ones to fight off.
However, babies born by caesarean section miss out on this process. As a result, it has been claimed that C-sections are linked to a higher risk of some immune-based diseases.
Vaginal seeding – otherwise known as microbirthing – is a procedure whereby vaginal doctors take a swab from the mother’s vagina and wiping this over the baby’s mouth, eyes, face and skin shortly after birth by caesarean section.
The hope is that the vaginal microbes will create a biome (a collection of bacteria) that is equivalent to that of a baby delivered vaginally. In turn, they should boost a child’s long-term health and reduce their risk of immune disorders.
2. Does it work?
To put it simply, doctors aren’t sure.
A small 2016 pilot study published in the journal Nature Medicine set out to investigate whether it’s possible to encourage the same microbiome in C-section babies as the kind existing in infants born vaginally.
However, due to the limited data, the study authors acknowledged that ‘the long-term health consequences of restoring the microbiota of C-section-delivered infants remain unclear’.
A subsequent study published in Natural Medicine in 2017 also found that six weeks after birth, there wasn’t a big difference between the microbiomes of babies born vaginally versus those who received vaginal seeding after a c-section’.
‘Any differences that may be detectable at the time of birth are limited to the skin and oral microbiomes, and there is no difference in the gut, even at the time of birth,’ said Kjersti Aagaard, one of the authors of the study, The Bump reports.
She explained that a mother’s uterus isn’t sterile in the first place, so a baby’s initial exposure to bacteria doesn’t happen solely in the birth cnaal. ‘Interventions aimed solely at the time of delivery may be too little too late,’ she said. ‘More research is needed in that regard.’
3. Why is it so controversial?
Despite being tipped as a ‘natural’ process, the BBC reports that doctors in Denmark and the UK say there there was no evidence of any benefit to seeding as the main study of the practice in 2016 involved just four babies.
However, doctors warn mothers that ‘seeding’ could actually bring risks to a baby, including infections such as group-B streptococcus, E. coli and a range of sexually transmitted infections including HIV, chlamydia, herpes and gonorrhoea.
A report, published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, said more than 90 percent of Danish obstetricians had said they had been asked about vaginal seeding.
However, Dr Tine Clausen, the report author and a consultant at Nordsjaellands Hospital in Denmark, told the BBC News website: ‘I really understand, it’s a fascinating thought that you’re able to mimic nature by doing the seeding, but it’s based on some theoretical thoughts and we don’t have evidence to support it.’
She explained that a swab of the mother’s vaginal fluid may not contain the same bacteria as those transferred during a vaginal birth. In addition, any bacteria taken by a swab would be more diluted because of blood and amniotic fluid in the vaginal tract during labour.
— NHS Choices (@NHSChoices) February 24, 2016
Dr Patrick O’Brien, from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, added: ‘There is no robust evidence to suggest that vaginal seeding has any associated benefits.
‘We would therefore not recommend it until more definitive research shows that it is not harmful and can in fact improve a child’s digestive and/or immune system.’
‘It is also important to note that some vaginal bacteria can be passed on to the baby, occasionally causing illness.
‘Ultimately, it’s a woman’s decision, but as healthcare professionals, we must advise our patients about the balance of unproven benefits and the small possible risks involved.’
In the UK, around one in four babies are born via C-section.
The NHS states that skin-to-skin contact with the mother shortly after birth could possibly aid microbial transfer, with breastfeeding widely believed to be a good way to ensure transfer of the microbes a baby needs in the early months of life.
Read more about vaginal seeding on the NHS News page here.
BY KATIE O’MALLEY
This article originally appeared on elle.com