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Film eyes microbiome at birth

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The moment of birth is a joyful miracle — a time when the loving bond between parent and child is first formed.

But something else is formed in that moment that could be the key to the child’s lifelong health, according to an award-winning 2014 documentary. That something is the child’s bacterial microbiome, a collection of good bacteria that will keep pathogens at bay while supporting a healthy gut and immune system through life.

Turning a microscope on birth, the film “Microbirth” argues that as a baby passes through its mother’s birth canal, lies directly on its mother’s skin and begins to breastfeed, its bacterial microbiome is first seeded. But Caesarean deliveries and other interventions in birth can harm the one-time chance to establish a healthy microbiome. Such interventions could be affecting the microbial inheritance of the next generation, making them more prone to chronic diseases like asthma, type-1 diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.

“Microbirth” will be screened at 1 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Little Art Theatre — with free admission — as part of an effort to shed light on birth and breastfeeding practices that support healthy children and adults. The film, produced and directed by the British filmmaking couple Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford, was the winner of the 2014 Life Sciences Film Festival in Prague.

Following the 60-minute documentary, a panel of Yellow Springs and Dayton area experts will answer questions. Panelists are local midwife author and educator Cindy Farley, Ph.D., a certified nurse midwife, or CNM, who teaches at Georgetown University; Jalana Lazar, a CNM with a master’s in Public Health who works at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton; Dhyana Graham, a CNM and international board-certified lactation consultant who works at Riverside Memorial Hospital in Columbus, and Leslie Edmunds, a registered dietician with a private practice in Springfield.

Local CNM Anne Erickson organized the film screening and panel to spread the word about the latest research on the bacteria benefits of natural, vaginal birth.

“From my perspective as a midwife and mother, birth is an incredible, well-designed process and the more we interfere with it, the less it works,” Erickson said.

Having spent nearly 40 years in the field, first as a labor and delivery nurse and later as a CNM working in women’s health, Erickson has seen the dramatic rise in C-sections (which are now more than one-third of all deliveries in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control), along with other interventions that could interfere with the critical transfer of bacteria from mother to baby.

While there are life-saving reasons to do a C-section, the complete health impact of a C-section for mothers and babies should be considered — including the theory of bacterial seeding, Erickson argued. Practices like induction of labor with synthetic oxytocin, which can lead to C-sections, should also be re-evaluated in light of the recent research on the value of good bacteria, she added.

Scientists are just now beginning to understand the critical role that the 100 trillion microbes that live in and on the human body play in keeping us healthy, according to the film. Since humans only have 10 trillion of their own cells, we are, in fact, about 90 percent bacteria and comprise a symbiotic super-organism. The so-called disappearing microbiome hypothesis states that the loss of diversity in the human microbiome (which is down by one-third in the last century) could be fueling non-communicable diseases, now the world’s biggest killer.

Along with the overuse of antibiotics, birth practices could also affect the bacterial microbiome, according to the film. That’s because without the initial seeding of bacteria, the newborn’s immune system won’t mature properly, which affects metabolic processes and the healthy functioning of the immune system. Taking probiotics later in life can’t replace the seeding event, the film adds.

Panelists will talk about the importance of understanding the microbiome for parents and birth practitioners alike. In an email, Edmunds, who grew up locally and attended Greenon High School, said she will serve as the panel’s nutrition expert and will talk about the benefits of breastfeeding and also continuing to feed the gut with healthy organisms like probiotics and prebiotics.

Graham said she will add her knowledge of the “major role breastfeeding plays in establishing a healthy bacterial flora in infancy,” she said, along with how the World Health Organization’s Baby Friendly initiative is helping U.S. hospitals incorporate evidence-based birth practices. Lazar will discuss the importance of diet and avoiding antibiotics in microbiome health along with her work teaching vulnerable populations about prenatal nutrition. Farley will discuss the midwifery model of care, which leads to fewer birth interventions and better outcomes for mothers and babies.

According to the film’s press release, recent population studies show that, compared to vaginally born babies, babies born by C-section have about a 20 percent higher risk of developing asthma, type-1 diabetes and obesity and slightly smaller increases in risk for gastro-intestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease or celiac disease. In the film, researchers also connect many conditions, such as depression and skin cancer, to C-section births while cautioning that the research does not prove that C-sections cause chronic disease — only that they are associated with it.

The film ultimately asks: “Could we be producing a generation of children who are missing vital bacteria and could that be passed down and down for all future generations?”

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