Monday, April 11, 2005

Good Germs

I frequently report on the risks of living germ-free, including the fact that people who use antibacterial soaps actually get sicker. Now, from Germany, comes the news that babies delivered by Caesarean (C-section) were found to be more prone to food allergies and diarrhea than vaginally delivered infants. Sometimes, germs are good. In a study of 865 babies, all healthy and brought to full term from parents with a history of allergies, blood samples were taken at 12 months and checked for antibodies to common nutritional allergens, including cow's milk, eggs and soybeans. At birth, all mothers were given uniform nutritional recommendations, and infant formula was given only when breast-feeding was not feasible during the first four months of life. The 147 babies in this study who were delivered by C-section were found to be twice as likely to exhibit food allergies and had 46% more diarrhea than those babies who were vaginally birthed. The researchers' conclusion? Caesarean delivery might be a risk factor for diarrhea and allergic sensitization in infants with a family history of allergy.
Why were the C-section babies so much more allergic? Researchers believe it has to do with their lack of natural, protective bacteria. When babies are delivered through the mother's vaginal canal, they acquire the mother's vaginal, intestinal and other "friendly" bacteria. This helps to protect them, and is believed to be key in the development of healthy immune responses later in life. Babies born via C-section, on the other hand, are not only deprived of the natural, helpful bacteria conferred by vaginal birth, but, since they are lifted out of the mother's womb, they are immediately exposed to "unfriendly" bacteria from the hospital environment, which may be harmful and cause problems for them. Birth by C-section used to be a relatively rare occurrence. It was performed only when a known medical problem would make labor dangerous for mother or baby, or if a vaginal delivery was not progressing properly. In the last 10 years, C-section has become more common since it is "more convenient" for many mothers. In 2003, about 27% of births in the US were by C-section. There is no doubt that C-sections are sometimes necessary, for example, when there are developmental abnormalities in the fetus, such as Spina Bifida... an abnormal fetal heart rate... when the fetus is poorly positioned... or when there is a maternal disease or condition such as diabetes that may be worsened by the stress of labor. However, for those mothers who believe that a scheduled C-section fits their schedule better -- think about the impact on your schedule (and family) of managing a child burdened with gastric upset and allergies. While further study is warranted, it is worth considering.

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