As an OB-GYN physician, I’ve seen my fair share of strange and quirky birth plans. I’ve talked women out of encapsulating and eating infected placentas. I have kindly asked male partners to please not get naked and push alongside their laboring counterparts. All of this I’ve done for reasons of hygiene or hospital policy—if it’s freaky but doesn’t hurt anyone, well, you do you. I love a good birth plan.
The latest hipster birth trend, however, known as vaginal seeding, gives me pause. Intended for babies born via cesarean section, vaginal seeding is the practice of rubbing your vaginal juices all over the baby’s face, mouth, skin, and anus in order to let him experience the same bacteria as a vaginally delivered baby. It’s a subject of conversation at the moment due to a small pilot study from the University of Puerto Rico that followed just 18 babies (seven delivered vaginally and 11 delivered by C-section) from birth through the first month of life. Babies born by C-section were split up to receive either routine care or vaginal seeding. For the second group, gauze that was placed inside the mother’s vagina one hour before delivery was then rubbed all over the baby in an effort to recreate the vaginal flora environment. The idea here is that good bacteria in the vagina help the newborn by boosting his or her immune system, fighting off potential infections, and preventing autoimmune disorders … maybe.
This study presents very preliminary data that has probably inspired a few last-minute birth plan revisions. But let’s be clear here: The results of the study are not so clear. We have no idea if this practice protects anyone. And there are several scenarios wherein it may actually cause harm to the baby. For example, if the mother is Group B strep positive. Group B strep is a bacteria that is present in roughly 25 percent of all women in the U.S. and is the leading cause of meningitis and sepsis in the newborn’s first week of life. Another example is the presence of chorioamnionitis, which is an infection of the baby’s bag of waters that affects up to 70 percent of preterm deliveries, 13 percent of full-term deliveries, and 12 percent of C-sections. It’s not rare.
I am all for reducing maternal and fetal infection numbers, but let’s instead focus on preventive medicine: exclusive breastfeeding where possible, skin-to-skin contact after both vaginal and C-section deliveries, and decreasing the overall number of C-sections in the U.S.
If one thing is clear from years of delivering babies, it’s that no two births are the same. That’s why it’s ironic that “individualized” birth plans are, in fact, anything but that: Everyone and her mother now wants skin-to-skin and delayed cord clamping. And yet every birth is different, because birth is a natural, humbling event—regardless of the mode of delivery or whether you swab your baby with your vaginal juice.