It's called vaginal seeding because of course it is.
Vaginal seeding is the practice of taking a piece of saline-soaked gauze that has been held in the mother's vagina and swabbing the baby's mouth, eye area, mouth, skin, and anus. You have to wonder what the purpose of such a practice would be.
Knowing what microbiomes are and why we need them is key to understanding the reasoning behind vaginal seeding. Microbiomes are the genetic material of all the microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses — that live on and inside the human body.
The bacteria in the microbiomes help to digest our food, regulate our immune system, protect against other bacteria causing disease, and produce vitamins including B vitamins B12, thiamine and riboflavin and vitamin K (which is needed for blood coagulation). Microbiomes are crucial for human development, immunity, and nutrition.
While the baby is in the womb, the baby's gut is most likely a sterile environment until the membranes rupture and the water breaks. At this point, researchers believe the microbiome is first colonized by mom's bacteria, and these microbes continue to be planted during the trip through the birth canal; the child is coated with them. So immediately after birth, a baby's microbiome looks a lot like the bacteria of their mother's vagina.
But if a baby is born via C-section, they're deprived of their mother's vaginal bacteria and their bacterial community resemble the bacterial communities found on the skin. Because of this, babies born via C-section are more likely to suffer from a variety of health issues including asthma, allergies, eczema, type 1 diabetes, and celiac disease, and they're more likely to be hospitalized for gastroenteritis.
What's worrisome is that this isn't just bacteria of the mom's skin, but of the doctors, nurses, other patients in the hospital, even the janitorial staff who cleaned the operating room floor. This practice can also be extremely detrimental to the baby's health.
According to an editorial published in The British Medical Journal, there's no medical proof that this practice is safe. As far as wiping down a newborn with vaginal fluid from the mother using sterile gauze, it's theoretically harmless. But when you consider the other bacteria the baby can be exposed to — pathogens from the birth canal, or a virus from a postnatal bath — it raises questions about how safe the practice really is.
Lead author of the editorial, Aubrey Cunnington, said, "There is now quite a lot of evidence that differences in the microbiome are associated with risk of developing conditions such as allergies and obesity. However, people have made a leap of logic that gut bacteria must be the link between caesarean section and risk of these diseases. But we just don't know this for sure, or whether we can even influence this by transferring bacteria on a swab from mum to baby."
But according to pilot a study by Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello in Puerto Rico, published in Nature Medicine, vaginal seeding has a positive impact ont he diversity of the infant's microbiome. The study included 21 babies and used the technique of removing the baby from mother's uterus, swabbing its mouth, eyes and skin, and placing on mom's chest.
"We saw that if you expose a baby to an inoculum, you got the inoculum in the baby," Dr. Dominguez-Bello said in an interview with The Guardian. Babies who were seeded with the gauze had a microbiome more like one who had been born vaginally. "While it's not equivalent to a baby born vaginally, there is some important restoration happening.
Dr. Dominguez-Bello recently expanded the study at New York University with 84 babies enrolled (so far), whose microbiomes will be tested for a year. But for now, it may be best to hold off on vaginal seeding until there's more conclusive evidence, as not all vaginal microbiota are equally good. No matter what birth method you choose, there should be lots of skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby.