In media reports this week, new research suggests children whose mothers took antibiotics during pregnancy have an increased risk of being hospitalised for serious infections.
The study, published this week in the International Journal of Epidemiology, looked at data from over 770,000 Danish children born between 1995 and 2009.
Antibiotics During Pregnancy Increase Infection Risk For Babies
The risk of infection increased with the number of doses, and with antibiotics being prescribed later in pregnancy.
There was no difference in risk between different types of infection – whether they were viral, gastrointestinal, lower/upper respiratory tract, bacterial, genito-urinary, skin, or soft tissue.
What Do Antibiotics Do?
Antibiotics have been a boon to modern medicine. They are used against bacterial, not viral, infections, and different types of antibiotics target specific types of bacteria.
Although antibiotics can be useful to combat serious infections, they can affect the number and types of healthy bacteria in our gut (microbiome).
Changes in the gut microbiome can be extreme, depending on the type of antibiotic prescribed and the length of the course.
It takes time to restore healthy gut flora, and it can also be problematic. When it isn’t clear which good bacteria have been affected, it can be difficult to restore the balance.
How Does This Affect Pregnancy?
During pregnancy, your baby is protected against infection by the amniotic sac and fluid, and the plug of mucus within the cervix.
Until recently, it was believed babies were born with no bacteria at all, and they acquired their microbiome through vaginal birth, skin to skin contact and breastfeeding.
Recent research has shown babies are exposed to healthy bacteria during pregnancy.
Any antibiotic use during pregnancy, therefore, has the potential to have a negative effect on the microbiome of the unborn baby, as well as on the mother’s microbiome.
What Does This Mean?
Infection in babies and children is a leading cause of disability and death worldwide. In developed countries, it’s estimated between 20 and 30% of children are hospitalised, at least once, with a serious infection.
Overuse of antibiotics has become a global concern, as health experts warn they are being overprescribed.
Bacteria have also begun to change; this reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics, and has led the World Health Organization to say antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health.
The study didn’t show a causal link. This means researchers couldn’t definitely say antibiotics caused the later increased risk of infection. However, they did find women who took antibiotics before conception gave birth to babies with a 10% greater risk of infection.
The results of this new research suggest the use of antiobiotics during pregnancy causes an imbalance in the microbiome of mothers, which also affects their babies and increases the risk of infection.
The researchers stress the results of their study shouldn’t prevent pregnant women from taking antibiotics if they are urgently needed. But this research should remind care providers only to prescribe antibiotics when absolutely necessary.
Pregnant women who need to take antibiotics might benefit from using probiotics to minimise the effects on their gut flora. Some probiotics on the market are specifically designed to be used after a course of antibiotics.
Increasing your intake of fermented foods and limiting processed foods can also help your gut to heal.
You can read more about the types of food to eat in Probiotics During Pregnancy Could Reduce PND, Study Says.
We know early development of a healthy gut flora is vitally important for a baby’s immune system. It reduces the likelihood of short and long term health complications.
This new research has the potential to increase our knowledge. It explains what causes healthy microbiomes to be affected during pregnancy, and how to best limit these effects.
It also opens up the question of how routine use of antibiotics – such as for Group Strep B – during early labour, might affect babies’ risk of infection and long term health.
Several studies have looked at the consequences of antibiotics during labour on infant microbiota and have found a negative impact (Jaureguy 2010, Keski-Nisula et al. 2013, Aloisio et al. 2014, Azad 2016).
What do you think? Is antibiotic prescription managed responsibly during pregnancy?