A new editorial published in The British Medical Journal yesterday, urges women against the increasingly popular practice of DIY ‘vaginal seeding’, which can do more harm than good to a child if the mother’s vaginal fluid carries harmful bacteria.
Infectious diseases expert and paper co-author, Dr Jonathon Darby from St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne, says anecdotal reports suggest an alarming number of women are following DIY internet guides to vaginal seeding and are swabbing their C-section delivered baby with vaginal fluid after delivery.
They don’t tell their doctor or the nurse but instead perform the procedure in secret to avoid medical questioning.
“There are a lot of lay websites and health blogs that are actually giving women instructions on how to do it,” says Dr Darby.
“They say that doctors and nurses ‘don’t need to know about it: it’s fine’.
“So some women are doing this procedure on their own, administering a large amount of their vaginal fluid to a baby’s face after birth.”
Dr Darby says ‘DIY’ vaginal seeding is dangerous because, in most cases, a woman’s vaginal fluid hasn’t been tested for disease.
“There are some sexually transmitted infections that women may have but not be aware of like herpes and Group B streptococcus, which is the most common cause of sepsis in newborn babies.
“A quarter of women carry that bacteria. They may not be unwell with it and they won’t know that they are transmitting a risk to their child by doing this procedure themselves,” Dr Darby explains.
“We advise that women who want to do this themselves are screened for infections.”
The practice of ‘vaginal seeding’ is thought to boost a newborn’s gut microbes to keep their immune systems healthy and lower the child’s risk of developing conditions such as asthma, food allergies, and hay fever in later life.
However, Dr Darby explains, the procedure is currently the subject of ongoing research and the evidence is inconclusive.
A world-first study, published in the journal Nature Medicine earlier this month, showed that a C-section baby’s microbiota (the community of microorganisms that inhabit the human body) could be successfully modified if they are exposed to vaginal fluid as soon as they are delivered.
However, the study’s authors stated that further long-term, randomised studies were required to determine the lasting effects of microbial exposure and more larger-scale research work is needed to substantiate the benefits of the procedure.
Dr Darby says this study examines the link between medically supervised vaginal seeding and a newborn’s microbiota, which “could” be associated with immunity in later life.
“But at this point, there are only associations not causations” and further evidence is needed to substantiate the fact that vaginal swabbing prevents disease as C-section babies age.
Dr Darby and co-authors of the BMJ editorial suggest that women who want to boost a child’s microbiota should breast feed newborns and avoid unnecessary antibiotics, not engage in vaginal swabbing.
“Encouraging breast feeding and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics may be much more important than worrying about transferring vaginal fluid on a swab,” the authors state.
Encouraging breast feeding and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics may be much more important than worrying about transferring vaginal fluid on a swab
Dr Darby also advises that women who are curious about vaginal seeding should consult their doctor about the risks involved.
“Women should always have a discussion with their health provider about the fact that they are interested in doing this procedure. If they go ahead and undertake ‘vaginal seeding’ themselves, that’s their own decision but at least they go ahead and perform it in an informed way.”
Parents are also advised to tell their doctor about the procedure if their child becomes sick after the event “so that doctors and nurses can take it into consideration when trying to diagnose what’s wrong with a baby”.