Last year, a practice known as ‘seeding’ gained a certain amount of attention, after several studies emerged showing c-section babies had significantly different gut bacteria than those born vaginally. The studies showed c-section babies had much lower levels of, and fewer types of, beneficial bacteria than the vaginally born babies.
In a very short time, women have begun to implement the practice of vaginal seeding in the event of having a c-section birth. Across social media groups and online forums, women are helping each other to understand seeding and how to implement it.
To understand more about vaginal seeding, BellyBelly’s article, Seeding Baby With Good Bacteria Using Vaginal Swabbing has more information.
What Is Vaginal Seeding?
Vaginal seeding is the practice of taking vaginal fluids from a mother during a C-section and manually applying them to a newborn. The goal is to expose the baby to the same beneficial bacteria they would encounter during a vaginal birth.
Some studies show that C-section babies have different gut bacteria than vaginally born babies. As we will see studies show that vaginal seeding doesn’t help establish a healthy gut microbiome in C-section babies by exposing them to bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These good bacteria are thought to benefit immunity and digestion.
However, vaginal seeding is controversial and not medically recommended. There are risks like infection from improperly screened or handled fluids. The longterm effects are also unknown. The gut microbiome is complex, and vaginal fluids are just one of many factors that shape a baby’s bacterial balance.
While the idea behind vaginal seeding seems reasonable, more research is needed on both its safety and efficacy before it becomes standard practice.
The purported benefit of vaginal seeding
Vaginal seeding, the practice of transferring vaginal fluids to C-section babies, has some purported benefits but also risks you should consider.
Proponents claim “seeding” exposes C-section babies to the same beneficial bacteria they would encounter during a vaginal birth. This early exposure may help populate their gut microbiome and support immune system development.
The most significant concern is that of infection transmission from mother to newborn. Although rare, infections like group B streptococcus, chlamydia, and herpes can be passed from mother to baby during vaginal delivery. Vaginal seeding bypasses the usual screening done during pregnancy to detect these infections. There is also a lack of evidence showing that vaginal seeding provides the benefits that proponents claim.
The birthing process and a newborn’s early days are precarious enough without introducing unnecessary risks. For now, most physicians argue that vaginal seeding should not be performed outside of carefully controlled clinical research studies. They recommend allowing a newborn’s microbiome to develop on its own through exposure to environmental microbes and by breastfeeding.
While seeding may someday be shown to have benefits, we must first establish its safety and efficacy through rigorous scientific research. As with any medical intervention, the risks and rewards must be fully weighed before broadly recommending it.
Are concerns about the risks of vaginal seeding valid?
Recently, Aubrey Cunnington, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London, has spoken out against the practice of vaginal seeding. He and several other experts writing in the British Medical Journal are urging practitioners and parents alike not to perform vaginal seeding, stating a lack of evidence to prove the benefits of the practice, and claiming it could potentially put babies’ health at risk.
While research on the human microbiome is ongoing, evidence so far is stacking up. Babies who are exposed to the beneficial bacteria in their mother’s vagina as they are being born appear to have a lower risk of health problems such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity. Naturally, mothers wanting to ensure the best health possible for their babies have undertaken to replicate the natural seeding, missed in a c-section, with vaginal seeding.
Seeding involves taking piece of sterile gauze, and inserting it into the woman’s vagina for 1 hour to absorb fluids and be colonised with bacteria. The gauze is removed and kept in a sterile bag until after the c-section, when it is wiped over the baby’s face and mouth. This is intended to mimic the seeding that would happen if the baby had been birthed through the vagina.
The authors of the BMJ report appear to be concerned about the possibility of babies acquiring viral and bacterial infections via the practice of seeding. What isn’t clear is how the authors assume this is any different from what happens when babies are born naturally, through their mother’s vaginas. To quote Milli Hill in The Telegraph:
“It’s as if everyone’s completely forgotten – perhaps in their scramble to portray mothers, yet again, as selfish feckless idiots – that babies actually come out of women’s dirty, soggy, bacteria-laden vaginas every single day. That’s what’s supposed to happen, folks!”
In most countries, pregnant women are routinely screened for infectious diseases. Very few diseases prevent vaginal birth, although this depends on when the disease is screened for, and the treatments available. If a c-section is scheduled, women can be screened for infectious disease prior to the surgery, to ensure no disease can be passed on. If a c-section occurs after labour has begun (emergency c-section), there’s little difference in the baby acquiring potentially harmful bacteria during the planned vaginal birth, or the unplanned c-section.
C-Sections And Risk Of Infection
Aubrey Cunnington and his colleagues suggest babies born by planned c-section are less at risk of acquiring harmful bacteria from the vagina. Yet research tells us c-section babies are at greater risk of acquiring bacteria from the hospital environment – including Staphylocci (which cause staph infections) and Clostridium difficile (infections of the digestive system). Women who have c-sections are commonly given antibiotics, wreaking further havoc on both the mother’s and baby’s gut microbiome.
C-section rates continue to be double the recommended levels set by the World Health Organisation (10-15% of all births), demonstrating a large number of women are being let down by the maternity system in their country. Women who have low risk pregnancies are often treated as high risk, and interventions are common – increasing the risk of surgical birth.
There’s still much research to be done on vaginal seeding, but until it’s available, women have taken the matter into their own hands. It’s worth noting that Dr Maria Dominquez-Bello, who leads the research into birth and the microbiome, screens research participants for viral, bacterial and fungal infections, as well as for HIV and GBS.
Clearly, there are many questions to be answered in this new field of research. However, the risks of passing on harmful bacteria to your baby via vaginal seeding appear to be the same as those during vaginal birth. Being informed about your choices for both vaginal and c-section birth are important. If care providers are reluctant to assist you with vaginal seeding, pass on this article (with the links referencing the research) for them to read. It’s likely you will have been screened for infectious diseases, but discuss this protocol with your care provider so you can make an informed decision.