The Microbiome Begins at Birth: An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Toni Harman

Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford are a British filmmaking couple whose documentaries are having an astounding impact on the health of our children and our future. They are working with some of the top scientists in the world to gain an understanding of, and present their findings on, the importance of the microbiome.

Their recent film, Microbirth, investigates the latest scientific research about the microscopic events happening during childbirth, and how these events could have lifelong consequences for the health of our children and all of humanity.

Through riveting interviews with world-renowned scientists along with intelligible and remarkable explanations of biological processes, Microbirth shows us the critical role that vaginal birthing, immediate skin-to-skin contact, and breastfeeding play when it comes to inoculating a newborn with its mother’s beneficial bacteria—therefore increasing a child’s likelihood for a healthier life.

Toni stopped by to chat with us about Microbirth, the first of her inspired and educational documentaries, as well as the necessity of sharing information on the importance of the microbiome.

Will you share with us what inspired you to start your filmmaking organization, One World Birth?

One World Birth is not so much an organization as it is an idea and an umbrella to encompass all of the films we make about childbirth. Ten years ago we were making feature films. Then, we had a daughter, and we started making documentaries about childbirth. We wanted to make films, longer form films, shorter form films, and just to start a community about childbirth and the ideas around childbirth.

Our first film called Doula! is a 50 minute documentary that follows birth doulas as they support three women through their births. After making Doula!, we made a film called Freedom for Birth which was about human rights and childbirth. In the course of making Freedom for Birth, we started hearing about the science behind childbirth.

For example, we heard about epigenetics and what that means. (Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.) Then, we started hearing about the microbiome and how a baby’s microbiome is seeded during birth.

This was new to us, so we embarked on a journey. We searched for answers by connecting with many reputable scientists, and we quickly discovered that there was enough important information that needed to be shared. So we created a film called Microbirth that we released last year. We are now making a documentary about what you can do from birth onwards to live a life for your microbes. In other words, our current film, called A PRObiotic Life, is about living a life that is microbial-friendly and by doing so you can hopefully live a happier, healthier life.

No doubt, you have become experts on the human microbiome. What are some important tips you can share about how each of us can improve the condition of our microbiome?

The latest research is starting to indicate that processed foods might not be beneficial to the microbes in your body. At the same time, the foods that may be beneficial include vegetables, unprocessed meats, and fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt. Everybody's gut microbiome is unique and so some foods might be more beneficial to a person's microbiome than others, depending on a person's genetic heritage.

It’s difficult because it is an abstract concept. It’s hard to explain to people about the importance of bacteria in your body because you can’t see it. This science is so new that it's really the case of raising awareness and educating people about the importance of our microbial friends. Organizations that are based upon the microbiome and probiotics have a difficult task in convincing people to change their diet and lifestyle to become more microbially-friendly because people first have to understand what being “microbially-friendly” actually means. Awareness about the importance of a healthy microbiome is only now just starting to spread. It’s almost like we are at the beginning of a road, and we have a long journey ahead of us, but the good news is that better health and happiness lies ahead of all of us.

What kind of response you have received from Microbirth and other your important documentaries?

The natural birth community has really embraced Microbirth because it is showing birth in a whole new light. Microbirth spreads a positive message about the benefits of giving birth naturally, but equally the film also shows what can be done to help optimally seed the baby's microbiome if a C-section becomes necessary. The film also looks at the benefits of breastfeeding for the microbiome of all babies; this is the second half of the critical 'seed-and-feed' process that happens during the narrow window that surrounds birth. The film makes a case that all women should be encouraged and supported to breastfeed, if at all possible, for the long-term health of the baby. It is that simple message that vaginal birth when possible, immediate skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding are all really beneficial to your baby’s gut microbiome. The natural birth community has really embraced this message because it makes complete sense to them.

Acceptance from the medical obstetric community is slightly more challenging simply because the science is new and it takes a while for scientific research to filter down to medical practice. Thinking about the 'seeding and feeding' of a baby's microbiome is a whole new way of thinking for many birth health professionals. However there's a whole body of scientific research being published right now, and this science is 'game-changing'. Our hope is that awareness of this science will inspire change in medical practice over the coming months and years, particularly so that all mothers can be supported with immediate skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding, whether they have given birth vaginally or by C-section.

These ideas are new, and it is quite revolutionary seeing pregnancy, birth, and childcare in a whole new way. To embrace dust, germs, and microbes is a completely different way of thinking than the sterile environment in hospitals.  

We’ve always thought that change happens either from the top with hospital policy makers, or government policy makers, or change can happen from the bottom. It is about spreading awareness so that everybody talks about the thing that needs to be changed. For us, this thing that needs to be changed is awareness of the importance of the baby's microbiome at birth and shortly afterwards. What I would like to see is every expectant mother asking her obstetrician, midwife, or care provider “How can you help me optimally seed and feed my baby's microbiome?” If they don’t know what they’re being asked, then they have to go and find out.

Hopefully this will inspire healthcare providers to find answers. For instance, they could potentially find out about Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, an associate professor in the Human Microbiome Program at the NYU School of Medicine, who is doing groundbreaking research on “swab-seeding,” a technique where C-section babies are wiped with gauze covered in their mother’s vaginal microbes. This emulates the baby's exposure to microbes they would have received if the infant had been born vaginally. Or, they might find out about the benefits of immediate skin-to-skin contact facilitated by a woman-centered Cesarean technique.

I would love to see people really engage with the research that’s coming out. If we can inform expectant parents and get antenatal educators on board, then it’s like an army of people who understand the importance of this subject who tell the next level up, their healthcare providers, who tell their next level up, who might be the managers and the policy makers. Eventually you tell the world, and you set the conditions ripe for a tipping point, and that's when change happens.

Microbirth does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of vaginal births, immediate skin-to-skin contact, and breastfeeding. As you know, some hospitals are not equipped to provide birthing mothers with the optimal scenario for the ideal birthing conditions. Do you have any advice for pregnant women in terms of what they should do to prepare for and create the most optimal birthing conditions possible?

Have conversations. In other words, find a healthcare provider who actually wants to have that conversation with you. Research yourself. It’s not hard, just Google “microbiome.” Google “seed baby’s gut microbiome.” Use hashtag #microbiome. The research is out there. It is accessible. There are so many articles being written about this type of research. It’s not rocket science, but it’s empowering expectant women with knowledge.

We made a film about human rights and childbirth called Freedom for Birth in 2012 and that was about empowering women to make fully supported choices that are right for them. There’s not a good choice, there’s not a bad choice. There’s not a right choice or wrong choice. It’s not black or white. It’s about making the right choice at the right time with the best possible information available. This is more likely to happen if you know about the importance of the baby’s gut microbiome, and if you know about the importance of a mother potentially eating well during pregnancy and exercising in order to foster a fantastic microbiome that’s going to be passed on to the child. If people know this information, then they can act on this information and potentially improve the health of their child. And it’s not just about improving the immediate health of their child but it’s for the rest of their child's life. In fact, science is starting to show that the effects could be transgenerational, meaning what happens in birth might actually have effects several generations down the line. We have a duty of care to ourselves and to future generations.

You mentioned that you have a new film in production called A PRObiotic Life. Can you share with us an overview of what information you hope to share with this film?

Yes, we are currently making a film that is called A PRObiotic Life (working title). The film isn’t so much about probiotics but rather is about living a life that is in harmony with your microbes. We have just about finished filming, and now we are about to start editing. So it will be ready in the summer of 2016. We want to have a global revolution and a global screening strategy all dedicated to one message: the secret to lifelong health and happiness could be as simple as changing your diet and lifestyle so that you start to live life in balance with your microbes. Remember, you are not an “I,” you are an “us” — your body is part human cells, part microbes, so you need to keep all the trillions of organisms living inside you happy. If they're happy, you're more likely to be healthy.  

We thank Toni so much for her time, and we encourage you to check out Toni and Alex’s recently-released book, The Microbiome Effect: How Your Baby’s Birth Affects Their Future Health for more eye-opening information on this extremely important subject.  You can also find more on Microbirth, A PRObiotic Life, and One World Birth on Facebook and Twitter.

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Dana Rutscher is the Practitioner Relations Manager at Hyperbiotics and possesses a vast and ever-expanding wealth of microbial health knowledge. With a graduate degree from Baylor University and a passion for helping others, Dana incorporates her enthusiasm for health and scientific discoveries into her professional pursuits and parenting. For more ideas on how you can maximize wellness and benefit from the power of probiotics, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.

Posted in Infant & Toddler Health, Interviews, Lifestyle, Mom + Child, Pregnancy & Breastfeeding


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