Babies and Bacteria: Unlikely Friends

By Dr Ernst
September 1, 2017

The modern convention regarding babies is to keep them as clean and sterile as possible. And while babies are, in some ways, more susceptible to disease than (healthy) adults, we’re beginning to realize that a baby’s exposure to bacteria is one of the most important precursors to healthy development–physical, emotional and mental.

The body’s microbiomes are crucial to health. Trillions of bacteria live in the gut, for example, where they help regulate digestion, signal immune responses to pathogens, stimulate the creation of neurotransmitters that control mood and mental health, and affect the body’s hormone levels–which have far-reaching effects.

The microbiome’s many roles are something we’ve covered extensively in this online space. For more research, read our look at its role in mental health (including depression specifically) and immunity. Or, if you’re looking to repair your microbiome, read about the “four R’s“.

While the microbiome in the gut is relatively well-known, many aren’t aware that microbiomes exist on the skin and in the mouth as well. All of these microbiomes play an important role.

When the microbiome in the gut is insufficient or unbalanced, people are more susceptible to infectious diseases, more likely to develop allergies of all kinds, more likely to have developmental disorders (i.e., autism), more likely to have digestive issues, less able to fight inflammation, can experience fertility problems and so much more.

Furthermore, the microbiome is a lifelong companion. It must be “set up” at the very beginning of a person’s life. Throughout their life, bacteria die off and reproduce. The bacteria in your gut at the end of your life are the direct descendants of the bacteria you were born with.

That is, unless, you kill them off. Antibiotics, particularly broad-spectrum antibiotics, kill bacteria. And while you’re happy to see the strep throat eradicated, it comes at a significant cost to the healthy bacteria you’ve been cultivating throughout your body. It can take between seven and thirteen years for a microbiome to repopulate after one round of antibiotics.

Of course, eating fermented foods, taking probiotic supplements and avoiding antibiotics can speed up the process, but few realize how destructive an antibiotic is to these necessary organisms.

Babies and bacteria

In utero, babies are sterile. The vast majority of their initial microbiome comes from exposure to the vaginal canal during childbirth and the breast milk they consume as infants. In other words, mom is largely responsible for setting babies up with a healthy microbiome from the outset.

Disclaimer: This is by no means intended to make moms feel guilty about the circumstances of their child’s birth. It’s more a condemnation of delivery practices in modern America. Plus, remember, you can fix your microbiome, so don’t panic!

Here’s the problem: worldwide, about 19% of births are cesarean sections. But in America, about 33% of births are cesarean sections. Why is that? The short answer is Ob-Gyn doctors who are afraid of malpractice suits and surgeons who don’t mind making a few extra bucks. It’s a side-effect of the so-called “free market” healthcare system designed to prioritize short-term outcomes over long-term health.

Nevertheless, it means 1 out of every 3 babies born in America is at a physical and developmental disadvantage right out of the gate.

To add insult to injury, all mothers who undergo C-sections are given antibiotics and about half of the babies born in the U.S. (C-section or not) are given an antibiotic immediately after delivery. Combine that with the fact that the average American child receives between 9 and 15 doses of antibiotics within the first three years of your life and we’ve got a full-on assault on our nation’s collective microbiome.

One piece of good news in all of this is that breastfeeding rates are on the rise. In 2007, 73% of infants were breastfed. 10 years later, that figure is up to 79%. This is incredibly helpful for the microbiome. However, moms are generally not breastfeeding long enough. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum breastfeeding period of 12 months. However, only 27% of moms last that long.

Final thoughts

As Americans, we should acknowledge the importance of vaginal births, breastfeeding and avoiding antibiotics.

Research and advocacy efforts are underway to educate the public and healthcare providers–and progress is being made. Interestingly, the emergence of “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics is giving doctors pause before they prescribe these drugs–which is helpful–but still misses the microbiome connection.

I propose formal recommendations by the AMA, CDC and WHO to prioritize vaginal birth, discourage cesarean sections and put pressure on insurance companies and hospitals to stand their ground on vaginal births regardless of any potential complications.

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