Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Prepare Your Gut and Birth Canal for Pregnancy and Birth

A note from Sarah: I did not know about the importance of healthy bacteria prior to having my children. As I've learned more and more, I've wished I had this information 5 years ago!

The baby's gut
While in the womb, babies have a sterile gut; their guts have not been populated with bacteria.  As a baby is being born, it ingests some fluid from the mother's birth canal. This means that the bacteria in the birth canal actually begins the process of populating the baby's gut. 

In our modern age of widespread antibiotic and pharmaceutical use, it is common for women to have abnormal bacteria in their bodies, and thereby in their birth canals as well. For instance, birth control pills "devastate beneficial bacterial flora in the gut leaving it vulnerable to colonization and dominance from pathogenic strains." As described in Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), improper gut bacteria can lead to small problems such as allergies and eczema, as well as big problems like autism, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and cancer. Because the baby's gut is populated by fluid from the birth canal, women who have improper gut bacteria can unknowingly pass serious problems onto their newborn babies.

Changes to make during preconception
Ideally, both of the parents (and especially the prospective mother) should try to ensure that their gut bacteria is healthy before conceiving a child.  The GAPS Diet allows the gut to heal and become populated by beneficial bacteria. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride,
"If there are no serious digestive problems present, allergies, chronic fatigue, lethargy or any other typical GAPS symptoms in the partners, then I recommend following the full GAPS diet for 4-5 months prior to conception.
If there is pronounced GAP Syndrome in any of the parents, particularly in the mother, follow the whole GAPS nutritional protocol until you are much healthier and feel that you are ready to conceive and go through pregnancy."
What if you are already pregnant?
If you are already pregnant, don't panic! Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride recommends the following:   
"If you are already pregnant go straight into the Full GAPS Diet. However, read carefully the section on the Introduction Diet and follow the recommendations for introducing fermented foods, as they need to be introduced gradually (if you never had them before)."
Preparing the birth canal
Since the baby will be ingesting fluid from the birth canal, it is essential to make sure that beneficial bacteria is present.  In the weeks leading up to delivery, this can be accomplished by applying plain yogurt or kefir to the vaginal area every day after showering.  Additionally, Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride recommends inserting a probiotic capsule at bedtime once per week (or alternatively you could insert a piece of natural fabric that has been soaked in yogurt or kefir; remove the fabric from the vagina after several minutes).

Birth location and method
In addition to the fluid ingested by the baby in the birth canal, bacteria in the environment will populate the baby's system.  This is one more reason that birthing at home can have great benefits for the baby. Instead of being exposed to a plethora of random germs in a hospital, a baby born at home will only be exposed to the bacteria present at home.

A natural birth ensures that the baby will have the opportunity to ingest the mother's bacteria, just as it was designed to do.  Whenever possible, use of antibiotics should be strictly avoided during and after birth, as these would wipe out any beneficial bacteria the baby ingests (and antibiotics are passed through breastmilk as well). Babies born by cesarean section may not have the opportunity to ingest beneficial bacteria from the birth canal (depending on whether the water was already broken and how far the baby descended during labor). Thus babies born by c-section may have their guts populated by the bacteria present in the hospital instead of the mother's bacteria.    

Breastmilk provides beneficial bacteria
Breastmilk, and especially colostrum, provides beneficial bacteria that can populate the baby's gut. Breastfeeding also provides antibodies to the baby that help prevent and cure illnesses.  Learning how to breastfeed can be stressful, so you may want to be prepared to contact a lactation specialist or La Leche League chapter after the birth.

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade, Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist, Pennywise Platter at The Nourishing Gourmet, Real Food Wednesday with Kelly the Kitchen Kop and Fat Tuesday at Real Food Forager!


Lauren said...

This is SUCH important information, Sarah; thanks for condensing it and getting it out there.
I have to mention, though, that I find it amusing that Dr. NCM assumes a woman of childbreaing age showers every day!
For expressing how important breastfeeding is, I can't beat the article here: http://www.bestforbabes.org/the-cracks-in-the-foundation-the-first-food

Sarah Smith said...

Thanks for the link, Lauren.

Penniless Parenting said...

This is really interesting. Both my kids had thrush not long after birth, even though I didn't have a noticeable yeast infection at birth. Maybe applying yogurt or kefir daily during my last month of pregnancy will make a difference this time around. One note about kefir- I heard that for people that are sensitive to it, kefir and kombucha have yeasts in addition to bacteria that can make you more likely to get an overgrowth of yeast?

Sarah Smith said...

My firstborn got thrush as well (and I got it in my breasts which made nursing very painful). That time around, I had antibiotics after the birth because a manual placenta removal, so we were both set up to get the thrush. Mine was very hard to get rid of; I had it for about 8 months!

As for kefir, I know it has yeasts but my understanding is that they are beneficial yeasts. Kefir also has very aggressive beneficial bacteria that actually kill off some of the undesirable pathogenic bacteria (this is why kefir can produce a die-off reaction in some people, because it is killing off the bad bacteria!).

Jill@RealFoodForager.com said...

Thanks for linking your great post to FAT TUESDAY. Hope to see you next week! Be sure to visit RealFoodForager.com on Sunday for
Sunday Snippets – your post from Fat Tuesday may be featured there!


Jill said...

Hi Sarah,
I featured this article at Sunday Snippets this week! Thanks for linking up to Fat Tuesday!


Bethany said...

What do you recommend for women who are going to have a planned c-section? We're a GAPS family, and I cringe that our little guy won't have the benefit of natural bacteria from the birth canal.

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Bethany,
With a planned c-section, I think the most important things you can do are breastfeeding and pushing probiotics for the baby. I had antibiotics after my firstborn (because of a manual placenta removal), so she got antibiotics too through the breastmilk. Consequently, we both ended up with thrush infection. I'm still working to try to get her gut bacteria in order and she is 4.5 years old now. If you can, try to make sure that your baby is not fed any formula during the first few months (or even any of the sugar water they like to give babies in the hospital). If the baby is exclusively breastfed, he will get probiotics from your colostrum and then also from your milk when it comes in. I would also start him on an infant probiotic as soon as possible since I assume you'll have to have antibiotics after the c-section. You could put a little of the infant probiotic on your breasts (in powder form) before nursing to make sure he is getting some probiotic even while you are on the antibiotic. Natasha Campbell McBride also recommends wiping the breasts and armpits with kefir or yogurt to make sure there is beneficial bacteria in those areas when you start nursing.

Diana said...

Hi Sarah,

What are your thoughts on the gaps diet not allowing milk? I know that the weston a. price foundation recommends lots of raw milk for pregnant and nursing mothers, and I understand that the gaps diet does not allow milk (or am I wrong?). Is there a substitute for the nutrients that a pregnant mother on the gaps diet would have to forego by not drinking raw milk during pregnancy and nursing?

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Diana,
You are correct that milk is not allowed on GAPS, but fermented dairy is allowed. So milk kefir and homemade yogurt could be used to get the great nutrition of milk without the possible difficult digestion (fermenting the milk into kefir or yogurt gets rid of the lactose, thereby making it easier to digest).

I am still nursing my youngest, and I drink LOTS of milk kefir on GAPS. Raw milk can actually be introduced during GAPS, but you are supposed to go through the full dairy progression first to make sure that your body handles it fine (since raw milk contains lactase enzymes, it comes with the enzymes necessary for breaking down the lactose).

In our family, we abstained from raw milk for the first few months on GAPS, then introduced it slowly with no problems. My daughter drinks tons of raw milk, and my husband drinks it daily too. I got so used to kefir that milk is almost bland to me now, and I really crave the kefir! I do occasionally drink raw milk, and notice no ill effects from it.

Bethany said...

Thanks, Sarah, for the tip! I've been in and out of the hospital with pre-term labor issues (we've made it to 31 weeks so far - woot!). Still keeping up our daily regimen of probiotics. One friend mentioned swiping a little powder in the baby's cheek before beginning nursing. I'm assuming that can work, too? Also, do you have any suggestions for GAPS-friendly finger foods for baby? I've been hunting for a cheerios-like substitute ... and all I can find are recommendations to try freeze-dried fruits. My daughter is so allergic to gluten/sensitive to grains, I don't even want to chance it with #2.

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Bethany,
Yes, some probiotic in the cheek of the baby should work fine.

As for finger foods, it is hard to find a cheerio-type substitute. We've used the following with our youngest (he's 19 months old now, and we've been on GAPS since he was 5 months old). He didn't start any solids at all until around 10 months old.
-small pieces of pork rinds (once he had enough teeth to chew them)
-dried peas (Just Peas brand have only one ingredient: peas).
-raisins (once old enough to chew them)
-fish eggs
-very small pieces of cheese
-small pieces of scrambled egg (once he was over a year old)

You also might like this post about feeding babies a grain-free, nut-free diet:

Bethany said...

Great article! One last question to pick your brain ... we only sweeten with honey here (though my husband and I can indulge in maple syrup in small amounts). I know infants younger than 1 year should NOT have honey. When making baked goods, like coconut-flour muffins, what should I sweeten the muffin with? I made all my own baby food for my DD, so I suppose I could make my separate unsweetened muffins for #2. Just curious about honey in baked goods -- does the no-honey rule still apply?

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Bethany,
Yes, the no honey rule still applies for babies less than one year old. That has to do with the potential for spores in the honey that babies cannot neutralize (I think botulism is one example) because babies don't have much stomach acid yet. Rather than make two separate batches, I just avoided giving my son any baked goods until he was over 12 months (wasn't such a big deal since he didn't start solids until 10 months anyway). He seemed to have a bit of a hard time digesting coconut flour anyway, so even now he doesn't eat many baked goods. He doesn't seem to really even want them, and would prefer applesauce (with a little yogurt mixed in) or eggs anyway. You could certainly try making some with maple syrup instead, but I guess it depends on whether you think your baby may have any gut issues to content with. Another option would maybe be to use applesauce or dates as a sweetener, although I've never tried those in grain-free baked goods, so I'm not sure if it would be a 1-to-1 swap. If you do any experimenting like that, let me know if it works!

Analise said...

Hi Sarah, Thank you for all your work! I have a question. I am strep b positive (or was with my first), and was put on antibiotics at birth, even though I had a natural birth. My son has many many many food allergies/sensitivities and I attribute many of them to my wiped (and his therefore) gut flora. Any recommendations around the shot, and or treatment? Or would I follow the advice you recommended to the c-section family? Many, many thanks!

Sarah Smith said...

Hi Analise,
Definitely follow the recommendations for c-section if you have to take antibiotics for strep-b. Back when I was pregnant, my midwives tested for strep-b, and were willing to work with me if it came back positive. This means that they would help me try some herbal things to get rid of the strep-b and then re-test to try for a negative result. (I didn't end up having it anyway, but was very concerned since I had learned that the antibiotics I had after my first birth really set up my daughter and I for future problems.)

It might be worth checking to see if your care providers are willing to work with you in the same fashion so that you won't have to have the antibiotics at all. If you haven't already had the test, it seems like a good plan to go ahead and start introducing probiotics to the vagina so that they could kill off the strep b before you even get tested.

I did a quick search and ran across this link that might help:

Amber said...

What kind of infant probiotic is suggested?

Sarah Smith said...

They sell special infant probiotics at the healthfood store. I would also feel comfortable using small amounts of raw milk kefir. And breastfeeding also provides lots of probiotics to the baby.

Anonymous said...

we are planning a water birth, and have been questioning what this method of birthing would do to the babies gut flora. If anyone has any insite on this, please let us know!

Sarah Smith said...

I'm not sure. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to add a bit of milk kefir or probiotic caps to the water?

Anonymous said...

What a great idea! Thank you so much.

Kerri C. said...

Hi Sarah,
Thought you would find this article of interest: "What’s in Your Vagina?
A healthy microbiome, hopefully."


Sarah Smith said...

Thanks for sharing that link, Kerri! Interesting article!