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According to research, a newborn’s birth mode and early feeding can have a significant impact on the bacterial composition of an infant’s gut. Why is the composition of a baby’s gut important? Because bacterial buildup, primarily in the large intestine, develops after birth and after feeding begins and is linked to health issues later in life, including the likelihood of asthma, allergies and other immune disorders.

“Babies are infertile in the womb, and the time they are born is a time when the immune system has a large number of bacteria presented to it. The assumption is that this time of birth is a thermostatic time that defines the immune system for later life,” said Dr Nigel Field, Associate Clinical Professor at University College London.

“Caesarean babies are more likely to have ‘opportunistic pathogens,’ which are bacteria that can enter their bodies. Most of the time, these pathogens do not harm healthy people, but they can cause diseases when the immune system does not work well or they get into places they shouldn’t, such as tissues or the bloodstream.

About the study suggests

The study involved more than 100 six-week-old babies born at a gestational age of nearly 40 weeks. 70 babies were born vaginally and 32 by caesarean section. During the first six weeks of life, 70 were breastfed, 26 received a combination of breast milk and formula, and six received formula only.

By tracking the birth and feeding records of these babies, the researchers discovered that those born vaginally had a different gut composition than those born by caesarean section. There were also differences between newborns who were breastfed and those who received formula or a mixture of formula and breastmilk.

The study is part of the project Baby Biome Study, published in the journal Nature, which aims to follow thousands of newborns through infancy to understand the role birth mode plays in gut colonization by microbes. In the near future, the study will also examine the impact that other factors, such as antibiotics and breastfeeding, have on the gut microbiota and, therefore, overall health across the lifespan.

What is the long term perspective?

There have been no long-term longitudinal investigations of the impact of early feeding strategies on the microbiome to date. Still, the study authors believe that early feeding methods may have long-term consequences for microbial community structure.

“Understanding the microbial colonization patterns of the digestive tracts of healthy infants is essential for understanding the health implications of various risk factors and modifiable exposures in early life,” they concluded.

“To this end, we have detected detectable changes in the microbial communities of the digestive tract of newborns depending on delivery style and food, with potential short- and long-term health implications.”

What should pregnant women do?

While these results are intriguing, doctors say they shouldn’t deter women from having a C-section. According to Dr Alison Wright, Vice President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a caesarean section is a life-saving procedure in many cases. It may be the right choice for a woman and her baby.