Study tries to give C-section babies mom’s germs they missed

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

(Photo credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Sharing bacteria in the operating room normally is a no-no but in a novel experiment, researchers are giving babies born by C-section a dose of presumably protective germs from mom’s birth canal.

We share our bodies with microbes that help keep us healthy from birth. Typically babies get a massive first dose of bacteria through vaginal birth, but babies born by C-section miss out on those particular bugs, something many scientists suspect could have consequences later in life.

On Monday researchers report in Nature Medicine a small pilot study suggesting it’s possible to partially restore some of those missing microbes. C-section babies who were swabbed with their mother’s vaginal fluid developed their own microbial neighborhoods more similarly to vaginally born infants.

This first-step attempt to manipulate birth microbes was very small, comparing seven babies born vaginally with 11 born by scheduled C-section, four of whom got that dose of mom’s bacteria. Over the next month, researchers took more than 1,500 samples of different body sites to see how the infants’ own microbiomes were developing.

The specially exposed C-section babies developed microbial neighborhoods that were more similar to vaginally born infants than to the other tots born surgically. In particular, the swabbed babies harbored more of two bacteria species — Lactobacillus and Bacteroides — that are thought to play a role in training the immune system, and that were nearly absent in the untreated C-section babies.

The bigger question is not just how the bugs affect early microbiome development but whether that translates to better health years later. For example, previous studies have suggested babies born by C-section have a higher risk of developing asthma, allergies and certain other health conditions, and no one knows why.

Far more research is needed to prove if the technique really works or makes a difference in babies’ health.

For now, the best advice is to avoid elective C-sections, and whatever the birth method, mother and baby should get lots of skin-to-skin contact, said Dr. David Relman, a microbiome specialist at Stanford University. Nor should antibiotics be prescribed unless truly necessary, he added, as those medications kill good bacteria along with the bad.