A new study published in the July issue of Acta Pædiatrica, a peer-reviewed monthly journal at the forefront of international pediatric research, found that babies born by cesarean section experience changes to their DNA in their white blood cells (called leukocytes) which they believe could be related to negative stresses around birth, particularly the cesarean section. The study, entitled Epigenetic modulation at birth – altered DNA-methylation in white blood cells after Caesarean section, was led by a team of Swedish researchers who sampled umbilical cord blood (collected at the time of birth) and venous blood 3-5 days after birth from a total of 37 newborn infants, 21 of which were born by spontaneous vaginal delivery and 16 by elective cesarean section.
According to the Medical News Today article, one of the authors of the study, Professor Mikael Norman, was quoted in saying:
“Delivery by C-section has been associated with increased allergy, diabetes and leukaemia risks. Although the underlying cause is unknown, our theory is that altered birth conditions could cause a genetic imprint in the immune cells that could play a role later in life. That is why we were keen to look at DNA-methylation, which is an important biological mechanism in which the DNA is chemically modified to activate or shut down genes in response to changes in the external environment. As the diseases that tend to be more common in people delivered by C-section are connected with the immune system, we decided to focus our research on early DNA changes to the white blood cells.
Animal studies have shown that negative stress around birth affects methylation of the genes and therefore it is reasonable to believe that the differences in DNAmethylation that we found in human infants are linked to differences in birth stress. We know that the stress of being born is fundamentally different after planned C-section compared to normal vaginal delivery. When babies are delivered by C-section, they are unprepared for the birth and can become more stressed after delivery than before. This is different to a normal vaginal delivery, where the stress gradually builds up before the actual birth, helping the baby to start breathing and quickly adapt to the new environment outside the womb.
In our study, neonatal DNA-methylation did not correlate to the age of the mother, length of labour, birth weight and neonatal CPR levels – proteins that provide a key marker for inflammation. However, although there was no relation between DNA-methylation and these factors, larger studies are needed to clarify these issues.”
Although this study has its limitations (recognized by it authors) including its small sample size, it is fascinating to me as it is part of a growing sector of developmental biology dubbed “primal health” by French obstetrician Michel Odent in his book by the same name in 1986. “Primal Health Research” explores correlations between the ‘primal period’ (from conception until the first birthday) and health in later life. Since opening the Primal Health Research Centre in 1990, Odent has also created the Primal Health Research Database, available free online, which is a public collection of all the medical and scientific literature that belong to the framework of primal health research.
In her book Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care, author Jennifer Block writes:
“[Odent] is interested in looking far beyond the 5-minute Apgar score to what we might call the 5-year, 25-year, 50-year Apgar. He’s put a database online, where one can search studies that have connected narcotics at birth with addiction in adulthood; induction of labor with autism; and cesarean section with immune disorders. The research is far from conclusive, but it points to the large, unknown territory of the impact of medicalized childbirth.
Odent places value on the process of physiological childbirth itself, of which we still have only limited understanding. How can we fully appreciate the risks of intervention, he asks, if we don’t funny understand what is normal? The mother’s body has spent 9 months growing and sustaining fetal life, and millennia of evolution have depended on spontaneous labor and its timed release of several hormones to transition the fetus from the womb to the outside world. Odent has compiled scientific evidence that each one of these hormones serves as an important function in guiding the progress of labor and supporting the fetus—and that these hormones are interdependent. ‘What we’re understanding today is that what happens at birth seems to be important,’ says Odent.”
In my opinion, it should NOT be the case that the burden of proof lies on the supporters and proponents of unmedicated physiological childbirth (which is, as defined by author Jennifer Block, “[a birth where] labor begins and progresses spontaneously, the woman is free to move about for the duration, and she pushes in advantageous, intuitive positions.”) that “their” way is the safest and healthiest option for mothers and babies! It SHOULD BE the responsibility of proponents of unnecessary inductions, unnecessary cesareans, and outdated and harmful labor & postpartum practices (i.e. routine episiotomy, early and frequent vaginal exams, early amniotomy, flat-on-back/lithotomy/recumbent pushing positions, separation of mother and baby, manual pressure on the uterus, and “directed,” hold-your-breath-and-count-to-10 pushing) to have to prove, beyond any doubt, that their way is superior.
Because as far as I, and any credible research, is concerned it is NOT! And if it ain’t broke, why fix it?!