A Very Precious Free Gift For a Newborn Baby

25/04/2016 11:34

If you were asked to name a precious gift to give a newborn baby....

You might suggest a cuddly teddy bear, a shiny new toy, some beautiful baby clothes...

You might think a baby doesn't need any of those, but instead the most precious gift anyone could give would be love, time, undivided attention and lots of hugs and kisses.

And of course you might think the most precious gift of all is the gift of life itself - for sure enough the safe arrival of a new baby into the world is an incredible, beautiful, momentous gift.

You wouldn't necessarily be aware of another incredibly precious gift, something that is unique to every mother, that is given only once in a lifetime, that is invisible to the naked eye and yet it's something that could perhaps determine the child's lifelong health. It could even impact future generations.

We're talking the precious gift of.....bacteria.

Bacteria often gets bad press. They get nicknamed "germs" to be eradicated by antibacterial products or to be wiped out by antibiotics. It's true that some bacteria are pathogens and can be harmful, but the vast majority of bacteria are harmless and many species are actually beneficial to humans.

With the human microbiome being a hot topic of media and scientific interest right now, you might already be aware that all of us have trillions of bacteria living on, in and around us. These bacteria keep our bodies functioning and help protect us from disease.

But as it turns out, the amazing "gift" of bacteria is given during birth. This is the subject explored in our MICROBIRTH film and our new book THE MICROBIOME EFFECT:

(To rent or buy MICROBIRTH - please go to

During pregnancy, the baby grows up in a near-sterile environment. The baby might be exposed to small colonies of bacteria (from the womb, umbilical cord and placenta), but the main founding of the infant bacterial ecosystem starts during birth. With natural childbirth, the first main contact with the mother's vaginal microbes is likely to happen whilst the baby is in the mother's birth canal. Then the baby can acquire more bacteria from contact with the mother's faecal matter (a good thing), then more bacteria acquired from the air, from being touched, kissed and from being breastfed.

As well as up to 700 species of bacteria, breast milk also contains special sugars that are indigestible by the baby - but they are the perfect food to feed the bacteria originating from the mother that have newly arrived in the baby's gut. These special sugars encourage "good" bacteria to multiply quickly thereby crowding out any harmful pathogens.

This first "gift" of microbes that come from the mother help train the infant immune system so that the immune system can correctly recognise what is friend and what is foe; what should be tolerated and what should be attacked.

So what happens with C-Section? Well, the baby's microbiome is still founded but not with the mother's vaginal and gut microbes.Scientists believe the resulting "altered" infant microbiome could impact the training of the baby's immune system. This is one possible explanation as to why babies born by C-section are at increased risk of developing immune-related conditions including asthma, juvenile diabetes, coeliac disease and becoming obese later in life.

(To rent or buy MICROBIRTH - please go to

But can you artificially introduce the "gift" of the mother's vaginal microbes to C-section babies? Possibly. Dr Dominguez Bello, an Associate Professor from New York University, is researching a "swab-seeding" technique where a C-section born baby is immediately wiped with a swab taken from the mother's vagina. This is not yet a recognised medical procedure as the research is ongoing and there are risks involved, but early results suggest this technique could go some way to partially restore the microbiome for C-section born babies.

But that's not all. There's a critical "maternal heritage" aspect to the transfer of the mother's microbes during birth. If, later in life, a baby girl goes on to give birth vaginally (or "swab-seed" her newborn babies), her unique reservoir of bacteria held within her vaginal microbiome is passed from mother to child.

So the transfer of the mother's microbes can be viewed as a precious gift that is trans-generational - a baby girl's microbiome will resemble the mother's, and the grandmother's, and the great-grandmothers, if all were born vaginally.

In this way, the transfer of bacteria from mother to newborn is a precious "gift" that keeps on giving, from one generation to the next.

As it could have implications for the lifelong health of the child, and because it could even impact the health of future generations, I would argue the mother's bacteria should be viewed as an extremely valuable precious "gift" to be nurtured, protected and cherished by every expectant parent, midwife, doctor and health professional.

It's a unique, once-in-a-lifetime, perfect "gift" for a newborn. And what's more, it doesn't cost anything to give. It's a free gift that keeps on giving and as such, it's a free gift that perhaps we all need to know and think about. Just a shame that it can't be gift-wrapped!

For more information about the "gift" of bacteria given during pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and early infancy, have a look at our award-winning documentary MICROBIRTH or read our brand new book THE MICROBIOME EFFECT. Also available on

Toni Harman is the co-producer / director of MICROBIRTH, which won the top prize, the Grand Prix Award, at the Life Sciences Film Festival and is now being distributed internationally. She is also the co-author of THE MICROBIOME EFFECT which was published in the UK in April 2016 by Pinter and Martin.