It is difficult to say anything about birth without someone somewhere saying the discussion is making them feel some degree of guilt. The guilt factor seems to have become the elephant in the room.
Guilt is an important emotion that needs to be recognised and addressed. But surely just because something makes someone somewhere feel guilty shouldn't stop the truth being spoken, or new research being revealed. Especially if that new research has serious implications for our children's lifelong health.
The "guilt" question has popped up a few times since we launched ourMicrobirth documentary with over 350 premieres around the world on 20 September 2014. In fact, at the two premieres myself and my filmmaking partner Alex Wakeford attended (one at Imperial College London and another at the University of Sussex Medical School), we were asked variations on this question:
"Isn't your film going to make mothers who had C-Sections feel guilty?"
We tried really hard to make Microbirth as balanced and scientific as possible. The film was not trying to demonise anyone who had a C-Section or to dissuade someone from having a C-Section if it is right or necessary for them. Our focus was purely on looking at emerging science and the latest hypotheses. And as the film states emphatically, C-Sections are often necessary and they can be life-saving.
However, the latest scientific research is starting to point to long-term risks associated with Caesareans. Emerging science is linking C-Sections with a significantly increased risk of children developing immune-related conditions including asthma, type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease and obesity.
If you had a C-Section and you didn't know about all this, it's not your fault. It's no-one's fault. No-one is to blame. If you or your healthcare provider weren't aware of something, then you simply weren't aware of it. You can only do the best you can with the information available. "Microbirth" is simply providing new information so that a mother may choose to factor in this information to make the best possible choices.
Being unaware happens. In the 1960's, parents bought children's pyjamas with flame-retardant chemicals thinking they were better protecting their children. Then years later we learned that the flame retardant chemicals used were actually toxic.
The truth is, up until now, few people realised the importance of seeding and feeding the baby's microbiome for the lifelong health of the baby. (To find out why this is so important, perhaps read my previous Huffington Post article.)
Few knew there are three things that could be done to ensure the baby has the best possible immune system:
- Seeding the baby with bacteria from the mother's birth canal (through vaginal birth or in the future, wiping C-Section babies with vaginal swabs taken from the mother)
- Immediate skin-on-skin contact with the mother (but could also be the father) for the transfer of more microbes to the baby
- Breastfeeding to provide essential nutrients that not only feed the baby, but also feed the bacteria that have been newly seeded in the baby's gut.
Looking into the future, this new science is actually offering us an exciting opportunity. All mothers could be made aware of this new research during their antenatal appointments. Mothers could then formulate a plan along with their midwives or obstetricians to optimally seed and feed their baby's microbiome - however the baby is born, whether by C-Section or vaginally. (I wrote about this in another previous Huffington Post article.)
As Rodney Dietert, Professor of Immunotoxicology from Cornell University says in Microbirth;
"The single most important thing we can do for a healthy baby across a life-course is to ensure that microbial seeding occurs completely at birth through vaginal delivery when possible, that skin-to-skin contact occurs and that the microbes are supported through breastfeeding of significant duration. This should be on every birth plan. Every health professional, every medical professional tending to pregnant women, to the birth process, through infancy should be aware of these things, should be aware of the importance of the microbiome and supporting a healthy microbiome. Because that is what is going to influence the health across a life-span versus one filled with disease for that child."
I didn't know any of this science when I myself had a C-Section seven years ago. Do I feel guilty about having a C-Section knowing what I know now? Yes. I do carry some guilt that my daughter may be more susceptible to disease later in her life.
But can I do anything about it now? Other than to continue to feed her a healthy diet, to ban anti-bacterial products in our household, to use prescribed antibiotics only when absolutely necessary possibly in conjunction with probiotics to help restore microbial diversity, there isn't much more I can do. (Apart from perhaps getting a dog as recent research seems to suggest this could help increase microbial diversity.)
As Professor Rodney Dietert says in the film;
"There's one chance, there's a narrow window. If we miss the window at that point, then the immune system never matures correctly. And that can lead to haphazard responses and production of disease later in life."
That one chance, that narrow window, surrounds birth.
I missed the window by having a C-Section, by not having immediate skin-to-skin and by breastfeeding "topped up" with formula. By making this film, I hope that other mothers won't miss their window with their babies. I hope that no-one else feels guilty because they did or didn't do something during their birth because they simply weren't aware of the latest research.
It's time to push the elephant out of the room. It's time to wipe the slate clean. It's time to empower all women in their birth choices for the sake of the lifelong health of all babies.