While pregnant, it is only natural to think that your baby is in the safest place it can ever be. I must admit that while pregnant, it never occurred to me that my womb, that special part of my body where my babies can grow in comfort, kick around however they want to, have appropriate nourishment for every stage of their growth, could also harbour so much bacteria that it has an effect on their future health.
But all that was turned on its head recently. My womb, and every woman’s womb for that matter, is actually not the safest place for their baby(ies). Why is that, you ask? It’s simply because babies are prone to infections in the womb! And since their immune system is not as strong as that of a child out of the womb, it can lead to dire consequences, like the loss of that baby, or birth defects, or even serious health conditions later in life.
Two years ago, Mariam, a close friend’s acquaintance had just gotten pregnant after a year of marriage, while it was not exactly planned, it was a welcome development. During a routine ultrasound scan, Mariam’s doctor had noticed some unusual activities in the womb. Not wanting to take chances, he had asked for further investigations to be done in the form of amniocentesis, just to be sure.
Mariam agreed to the procedure, and when the result was out, it showed that her baby was predisposed to haemophilia, a condition which affects someone’s blood’s ability to clot. As it happens, both Mariam and her husband were prone to severe bleeding, whenever they suffered any cut on their body. In fact, Mariam’s mother had always talked about the amount of blood that she always lost every time she gave birth, and that it always took a particular injection for the blood loss to be controlled.
If that was the only issue, at least Mariam knew it was something they had to deal with later in life; to ensure that the baby would not go near any sharp objects, and teach it safety measures, when it was old enough. The amniocentesis and Mariam’s subsequent admission for excessive bleeding also meant the doctor was better prepared to handle any bleeding issue during her child birth, and there certainly was.
However, the worrying issue that the amniocentesis brought about was that the baby had an infection. Mariam was so thrown on this one. She asked the doctor, how it was possible for her baby to have an infection in her womb? Was it not supposed to come into bacteria, only when it was passing through the birth canal? What did it mean for the baby? What did it mean for as her its mother? How could the infection be treated? “How did it get infected, for goodness sake?” was the question, she asked repeatedly.
According to what the doctor told her, any notion that the womb was sterile and free from germs and bacteria was incorrect, and that bacteria has been found on placentas of babies, whilst still in the womb. Basically, since the mom-to-be is an embodiment of bacteria, so also the womb would be, which was the issue in her case. Now, whether, the bacteria were good or bad, was where the concern was.
Upon further investigation, her doctor found out that a tooth infection Mariam had early in her pregnancy had caused the infection to her baby. She was treated for it, and assured that the baby would be fine. But till the day she gave her birth and held her baby, she was not convinced that her baby was not going to have a birth defect, or something else.
As it happens, researchers and scientists have done more studies in this area, and they agree on one thing; the womb is not as safe as we all had earlier thought. The ever-growing research on our microbiome (the world of invisible microbes that lives within us) revealed that in utero, babies are exposed to microbes, all thanks to mom.
For decades, doctors were taught that the womb environment was sterile — that the amniotic sac, and the fluid that surrounded the baby, was a uniquely pristine environment devoid of any bacteria or other microbial agents in order to protect the growing baby, which still doesn’t have a fully developed immune system.
The conventional wisdom was that the baby’s first exposure to bacteria starts during birth, from the mother’s vagina, and continues through the infant’s skin-to-skin contact with mom and from its new environment, doctor and nurse’s handling, not to mention eager people, who were awaiting its arrival.
But in recent years, scientists have been able to detect small amounts of bacteria in the amniotic fluid and in the placenta, and even in the foetus’ intestines, supporting the idea that the baby’s microbiome actually gets established far earlier than had been thought, in the womb.
In combination with other studies of the placenta, amniotic fluid, and umbilical cord blood, it now seems apparent that an infant’s first meeting with microbes is not at birth.
“Based on the sum of evidence it is time to overturn the sterile womb paradigm and recognize the unborn child is first colonized in the womb,” were the words of one of the researchers.
So, can we ensure that our wombs are as free of bacteria as much as possible? Well, doctors provided us with some pointers.
1. Include the use of non-alcohol antimicrobial mouth rinse in pregnant women. This helps to reduce the level of bacteria in the mouth, and thus the amount of same that can get to the foetus.
2. Ensure a normal weight while pregnant, as several studies have found, for example, that mothers who are overweight have different types of bacteria in their gut than those who are normal weight during pregnancy and this has obvious effect on the microbe that gets to the baby.
3. Stop taking unnecessary antibiotics while pregnant.
Those are some steps we can take to reduce infection risks to baby and have a successful pregnancy.
Continued sticky wishes and baby dust to all.
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