Sure, not everyone has the illustrious experience of dropping a deuce while pushing a baby out of their vagina. But the experience is definitely something that lots of women can relate to (and listen up, mamas: it’s totally nothing to be ashamed of). And even women who don’t actually poop while pushing know that their bowels tend to have a mind of their own during childbirth, and that these bowels just happen to be located very closely to the birth canal.
In essence, babies born vaginally will inevitably get up close and personal with their mom’s fecal matter. It’s a fact of life that no one can avoid. But what you might not know is that this is actually a good thing.
Here’s why. When your baby passes through the vagina during birth, they are exposed not only to whatever residue of poo is present in the area, but also to the life-giving and totally incredible bacteria that lives within said poo (as well the bacteria found on the mother’s skin and in her vaginal fluids). The idea is that your baby is essentially born sterile and is colonized at birth by whatever bacterial environment it encounters. And there is some evidence that being colonized by one’s own mother’s bacteria ensures lifelong health benefits.
“One theory is that any possible prenatal exposure could ‘pre-seed’ the infant microbiome,” notes Scientific American. “As soon as the mother’s waters break, this is the moment the party doors swing open, the stereo is switched on and the first VIP party guests flood in. Suddenly the baby is exposed to a wave of the mother’s vaginal microbes that wash over the baby in the birth canal. They coat the baby’s skin, and enter the baby’s eyes, ears, nose and some are swallowed to be sent down into the gut.”
Pretty fascinating, right? (And I’ll admit it: a little gross, when you actually picture all this.)
And even though we are talking about microbes, the positive effects of these little bugs are actually pretty huge. As New Scientist points out, babies who are not exposed to their mother’s microbes at birth have been shown to have an increased propensity toward conditions like asthma, food allergies, hay fever, and even obesity.
Of course, we all know that vaginal birth is not always possible for mothers—and that C-section moms definitely don’t need another thing to feel guilty or judged about. But some hospitals are taking some creative steps to try to remedy the fact that C-section babies don’t get colonized with their mom’s bacteria like vaginally born babies do. For example, one New York hospital, profiled in New Scientist, actually give babies born by C-section a “bacterial bath,” or swab of their mom’s vaginal flora after birth to replicate the environment they would have encountered had they been born vaginally.
Cool? Creepy? You be the judge.
“Before a planned caesarean, they give women a sterile gauze, which is concertina-folded and inserted like a tampon about an hour before the surgery,” explains New Scientist. “Just before the women enter the operating theatre, the gauze is removed and bagged. Within 2 or 3 minutes of the baby being born, its mouth, body and anus are swabbed with the gauze.”
Right now, the jury is still out about how effective a method this is, because very few women and babies have been studied thus far. There were, however, some positive results out of a small study of 18 women whose babies were given “bacterial baths.”
“The C-section babies that were swabbed had a more vaginal-like microbiota than those that weren’t,” says Jose Clemente, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Clemente’s team found higher “blooms” of Lactobacillus in the babies born vaginally and as well as the babies swabbed with their mother’s vaginal flora, as opposed to the babies born by C-section. However, it’s still unclear how this difference might affect the babies in the long term.
The good news is that if “vaginal swabbing” isn’t something you’d elect to do, there are other ways to transfer all your good bacteria to your baby. As Scientific American points out, breastfeeding is one of them, as is practicing skin-to-skin with your baby.
Of course, it goes without saying that even if you do none of those things, there are a million ways to give your baby a healthy, good start in life, and for the duration. And anyway, we all know that by the time your “perfectly bacterially balanced baby” becomes a toddler, they will be munching three-week old Lucky Charms off the slide at McDonalds, and all your attempts at healthy living will go die a quick, merciless death.