There is a new practice in the neonatal scene called vaginal seeding. In case this practice hasn’t crossed your radar yet, it’s a practice involving transferring bacteria from a mother’s vagina to a newborn who was delivered by C-section. Before you stop reading because you think that sounds gross, remember that the majority of babies pass through the vagina on their way into the world. (It’s also how they got there, if you know what I mean.)

We are all teeming with bacteria. There are hu‏ndreds of trillions of them living on your skin, in your gut, and–yes–in your vagina (if you have one). Collectively, these microbes are called your “bacterial flora,” and each person’s flora is unique (who knows, maybe some day we’ll use them like fingerprints). These microscopic creatures outnumber your own cells, and while there’s currently a tremendous amount of research into this topic, we are only beginning to understand how they interact with our bodies.

One thing we do know is that certain diseases (primarily autoimmune and allergic diseases) are associated with specific patterns of bacterial flora. This has to do with how the bacteria living inside your gut interact with your immune system–essentially training it to tolerate or attack certain things. Researchers are currently working on how modifying the gut flora may help to prevent or cure a variety of diseases, and it’s a field that looks pretty promising (although there are a lot of kinks left to work out).

Vaginal seeding came about because of the realization that infants who are born by Cesarean section tend to have gut flora that resembles that of their mother’s skin, while those born vaginally are colonized with bacteria similar to that found in the mother’s vagina. And there’s a limited amount of evidence that children born by cesarean delivery are at higher risk for allergic diseases. So it certainly makes sense that, for those infants who were born without exposure to the mother’s vaginal flora, vaginal seeding may be beneficial. Maybe.

Moms across the country — as well as some health care providers — have taken this concept and run with it, and there’s very little anyone can do to stop them. It’s not like we’re talking about a prescription medication or a surgical procedure; you just stick a swab in there and rub it all over your baby. Certainly the kind of thing most moms could pull off at home

So like so many things in parenting, it comes down to making an informed decision about whether this treatment is the best decision for your child. And while there is some plausibility to these claims, they have not been proven. While vaginal seeding attempts to replicate the exposure of a vaginal delivery, I think we can all agree that the two are not equal. We haven’t yet shown that this procedure has a real benefit, or how big that benefit may be. So that’s all a bit of an unknown, but one with some promise.

Here’s the thing, though: Vaginas don’t harbor only beneficial bacteria. There are villains among the heroes, and swabs don’t discriminate. The most common causes of neonatal sepsis (overwhelming infection that is fatal in many cases) are organisms that the infant picked up on the way out.


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