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In 1965, the rate of Cesarean Section (C-section) in the United States was 4.5%. In 2007, it was 31.8%. If that rate of increase isn’t shocking enough, a friend of mine who lives in Sarasota County FL, one of the wealthiest counties in the entire state, told me that the C-Section rate for that community currently stands at 46%!
How can this be? Nearly 1 in 2 babies born in Sarasota County was cut out of the Mother’s belly. The procedure is considered major abdominal surgery requiring weeks of convalescence. This instead of being born the simple way nature intended? A vaginal birth where Mom can literally get out of bed minutes after birth and take a shower!
How did this happen? It seems in a growing number of cases, elective Cesareans have become the norm. While C-section is a lifesaving procedure in some cases, using it to more conveniently schedule a birth is a decision fraught with potentially lifelong complications for the baby.
Dangers of Cesarean Birth
When a baby is born vaginally, exposure to the probiotics in the birth canal helps to colonize the baby’s intestines. This “seeds” the developing immune system for a lifetime of health. Babies born via emergency C-section especially if the bag of waters has already broken with labor underway for some time, do get at least some exposure to these helpful flora before surgical birth.
Elective (i.e., “sterile”) Cesareans where labor never starts provide no such opportunity for exposure. It is critical that a baby born in this manner get skin to skin contact with the mother immediately after birth. Immediate breastfeeding also is beneficial. Human breastmilk and colostrum “first” milk contain an abundance of these friendly bacterial strains to seed the gut properly.
Formula Feeding and Cesarean a Double Whammy to a Child’s Health
Babies born by elective C-section who are formula fed have the greatest risk to health as their guts are seeded with bacteria from the hospital environment, not Mom. In those situations, a homemade formula is critical as this provides probiotics and enzymes with every feeding much like nursing would. Note that donated breastmilk is almost always pasteurized and so does not confer this benefit.
The July 2009 issue of Acta Pediatrica found that babies born by C-section experienced changes to the DNA of their leukocytes (white blood cells). The extreme stress to babies from a “cold cut” Cesarean birth is thought to be related to these DNA changes. This experience has the potential to forever alter how the immune system responds to stimuli. Babies born vaginally do not experience such a stress shock. The vaginal birth process involves a gradual increase in stress response for the baby followed by a gradual decline says Hannah Dahlen, Vice President of the Australian College of Midwives.
This small study could help explain why children born by C-section suffer from a dramatic increase in the rates of diabetes, testicular cancer, leukemia, and asthma among other autoimmune disorders. Babies born by C-section have a 20% increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes, for example, than children born vaginally.
How to Avoid a Cesarean
It seems clear that protecting your child from developing autoimmune disease begins before labor even starts. Avoiding doctors who prefer elective C-sections and finding an out of the hospital birthing environment with a lay or nurse midwife can reduce a woman’s C-section rate from about 1 in 3 to around 5%. A hospital birth with a midwife attending has a C-section rate of about 10%.
It is also important to understand how to induce labor naturally and avoid epidurals as much as possible. Each of these interventions increases a woman’s odds of a Cesarean birth. Note: I realize there are some studies indicating that epidurals do not increase C-section risk. However, the studies that demonstrate a link are more compelling, in my opinion.
The health benefits to baby from allowing the birth process to unfold as nature intended reminds me of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. If you help the butterfly out of the cocoon, it dies. If you stand back and let it work its way out naturally, it lives. Same with a chick pecking its way out of an egg. Helping the chick out can make it very sick and even kill it. Letting it scratch and claw its way out and it lives.
Can’t we humans take our cues from nature?
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist