One of the things I discuss in my book, Inside Information for Women, is the modern trend of cesarean on demand, or elective cesareans. For many women, cesarean delivery sounds like a simpler, easier alternative to labor and pushing, and to the many doctors who agree with them, it sounds like a good time management technique – preventing their sleep or other activities from being disrupted by inconvenient spontaneous labor. Women should remember that cesarean delivery is major surgery and carries the same significant risks of all major surgeries. Besides, the postoperative recovery period is more difficult following a cesarean than the recovery period following a vaginal delivery. And now, new studies show an additional reason to avoid cesarean whenever possible – the altered gut flora of babies born this way.
The early bacterial colonization of the intestine in newborns is an essential part of development, and now we have a new understanding of what factors can affect this colonization – and what effect altered colonization has on a child. A recent study shows that babies delivered by Cesarean have disturbed intestinal flora for up to, and sometimes longer than, six months after delivery. Two dozen babies were tested and then followed for up to two years. Fecal samples were tested one week after birth, and for up to 24 months in order to identify certain types of bacteria.
The results were striking. A particular type of bacteria known as Bacteroidetes was found less often in babies delivered by cesarean compared to those delivered vaginally, with a delayed colonization of this bacteria and significantly lower immune responses.
Those lower immune responses could mean a higher incidence of the development of allergies or asthma later. This could be because intestinal microbes influence and regulate certain parts of immune function all through the body. There was also less microbial diversity in the babies delivered by cesarean. That this off-balance mix is linked to allergies and other problems later is the conclusion of several recent studies.
There are factors that still need to be studied, but this is an interesting first step in understanding the link between gut flora and allergies and is a testament to the benefits of natural vaginal birth – Mother Nature knows what she is doing. So, as if there weren’t already enough reason to avoid unnecessary cesareans, the new information gleaned from the studies on intestinal flora confirm that women should avoid surgical birth any time it is safe to do so.
- Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.