Like many women, I dreamt of an undisturbed and gentle birth. My husband and I would welcome our baby earth-side in the comfort of our home with our midwife and doula lovingly supporting us. It was all going to be beautifully, perfectly simple...until it wasn’t.
When my water broke at 27.5 weeks, all of my plans for a home birth—and the associated benefits to my baby’s health that I was counting on—evaporated in the blink of an eye. Two weeks later I delivered my breech baby boy via emergency Cesarean section in a hospital, worlds away from my well-laid plans.
You see, I knew from my work researching and developing probiotics how critical those first few hours, days, and weeks of my son’s life were to the development of his microbiome, the vast world of bacteria living on and in the human body. From a drug-free vaginal birth to immediate skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding, I had set the stage for the perfect microbial seeding of his little body.
Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans going awry—and I know I’m not alone. With a national 32% Cesarean rate (up from just 4.5% in 1965!) and nearly 1 in 10 babies born preterm1, a lot of women have birth experiences that are far from what they envisioned.
The good news is that, no matter what happens during delivery, you can give your baby an optimal start at life by adapting your plans and your mindset. I had to do just that and, after 64 long days in the NICU, we were thrilled to bring home a very happy and healthy little boy!
Your Baby’s Microbiome
The human microbiome is an amazing ecosystem, teeming with trillions of bacteria that work inside our body to (among many other things) regulate our immune system, provide digestive support, and produce vitamins and brain chemicals. Nearly 80% of the immune system resides in the gut, so the colonization of your baby’s gut microbiome is crucial for proper immune system development and a lifetime of health.
If you find yourself in a situation like mine, with a birth experience (or plan) that seems to throw everything off track, check out these ten tips for your very own plan “B.”
1. Focus on your own microbial health
Whether your baby’s entry into this world follows your birth plan to a tee or comes apart completely at the seams, you must have a healthy, balanced microbiome in order to pass your beneficial bacteria to your little one.
Stay away from microbiome-depleting medications and stress, and focus on a healthy, whole-foods based diet with lots of prebiotics—fibers that feed the good guys in your gut. Taking a daily prenatal probiotic like PRO-Moms and a prebiotic powder supplement seeds your entire system with plenty of good microbes and gives them the nourishment they need.
2. Try vaginal swabbing
A vaginal birth is the perfect way to inoculate your baby with all the beneficial microbes they need for a healthy start, but we all know that this isn’t always possible. Luckily, research is shedding light on new options.
Babies born via Cesarean have very different (and less beneficial) microbial mixes than vaginally delivered babies, due to baby’s microbe-rich journey through the birth canal. However, scientists have discovered that C-section babies who undergo vaginal swabbing—rubbing the baby down with a gauze covered in mom’s vaginal microbes—have a microbial make-up similar to vaginally delivered babies during at least the first month of life2.
3. Avoid (if possible) antibiotics for you and baby
There’s no doubt that antibiotics can be life-saving, but their indiscriminate effects tend to wipe out all of your good microbes along with the bad guys. Steer clear of any unnecessary exposure, such as in meats from animals raised on antibiotics. If you do need to take antibiotics, make sure to replenish your system with probiotics to keep your delicate microbiome in balance.
4. Breastfeed exclusively for six months
Breast milk is full of beneficial bacteria and prebiotics that provide your baby’s system with the best kinds of life-supporting microbes, but breastfeeding exclusively is the key. Studies show that infants fed formula along with breast milk have microbiomes similar to exclusively formula-fed babies3.
If your baby is premature or unable to suckle right away for any reason, it’s critical to hand express your milk within a couple of hours of birth (and pump often) to activate your milk ducts and get your body ready to start making your baby’s perfect food in abundance.
5. Provide lots of skin-to-skin contact
Microbes also live on our skin, and holding your baby skin-to-skin will help them acquire even more of your good bacteria. Kangaroo care, a chest to chest, skin on skin method of holding a baby up to several hours a day, does wonders for preterm and term babies alike—beyond just bacteria inoculation. Kangaroo care stabilizes the heartbeat, balances blood sugar, improves breathing, helps with weight gain, and enhances breastfeeding.
6. Wash baby with just water for the first several weeks
With all the beneficial skin-to-skin care and microbes you’re giving your baby, you don’t want to wash it all away with soaps and other harsh products. Plus, that newborn vernix (the white coating on a baby’s skin at birth) provides a barrier against harmful bacteria4. Give your baby’s skin time to welcome and integrate all the new good bacteria by delaying their first bath and washing with water for the first few weeks.
7. Choose diapers without chemicals and antimicrobials
Chemicals and antimicrobial agents can deplete the vital beneficial bacteria on and in your baby’s body (especially when they are so close to the genitals, an important microbiome in and of itself). Choose natural, chemical-free diapers, so the only thing touching your precious baby is probiotic-friendly.
8. Avoid using antibacterial cleaning products
Antibacterial products are exactly as they sound: against bacteria. The problem is, they kill all bacteria, not just the bad stuff. So, while you’re busily trying to seed your baby with tons of good bacteria, antibacterial products are trying just as hard to wipe it out.
Look for natural, plant-based cleansers—they can be as effective as antibacterial products, without the “anti” probiotic effects.
9. Supplement with baby probiotics
Even while breastfeeding, you can supplement with infant probiotics to make sure your baby’s gut has plenty of the good guy microbes for optimal growth and development. Most infant probiotic formulas are powders that you can easily rub into their mouth (or on your breast when they nurse) for simple ingestion.
10. Wean with organic foods
After six months of exclusive breastfeeding, you can begin to supplement nursing (breastfeed until two years of age if you can!) with fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods and anything containing emulsifiers—both deplete good gut bacteria—and try introducing probiotic-rich fermented foods early. My little guy is already a sauerkraut-connoisseur!
Try as we might to set up the perfect birth scenario, we can usually count on life throwing us a few curveballs. When your birth plan doesn’t work out as you had hoped, it can be an emotional and upsetting experience. Taking the time to acknowledge your feelings and focusing on how to best set your baby up for a lifetime of health and well-being can help you move forward with peace and gratitude...and allow you to savor those precious moments with your little bundle of joy!
References:1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). National Vital Statistics Reports. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_06.pdf
Written by Jamie Morea, Gut Health Evangelist, Mama Bird & Co-founder of Hyperbiotics. For more ideas on how you can maximize wellness and benefit from the power of probiotics, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.
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