I have to be honest with you here —
I’ve had my hand in a lot of women’s vaginas.
Not in any sick or even suggestive way, of course, but in the very normal routine of working as a labor and delivery nurse. I’ll never forget the strangeness of trying to learn how to do cervical checks or even my excitement when I finally figured out what the heck I was “feeling” for (“There’s a baby’s head in here, you guys!!”). But my days as an OB nurse, good and bad, included a lot of different vaginas and the babies that (mostly) came out of them.
And what’s interesting about the multi-functional tract in a woman’s body, is that despite our worry about its cleanliness factor, the truth is, there is a very important function to bacteria “down there” and everywhere in a woman’s body. It’s not all good of course, but bacteria during birth actually has a few different roles, such as:
1. Predicting preterm labor
Researchers recently discovered that women with certain types of vaginal bacteria have a greater risk of going into preterm labor. A study from Stanford University found that, “a high diversity pattern in the bacterial community” of a woman’s vagina could actually predict premature labor.
The doctors in this study analyzed pregnant women on a weekly basis by having them provide samples from their vagina, lower gut, saliva, and tooth and gum areas. The “healthy” women, or the women who went full-term, had similar bacterial patterns containing high amounts of the bacterium lactobacillus in most of the areas of their bodies, while the women who had premature labor had greater bacterial diversity, high levels of gardnerella and ureaplasma bacteria, as well as low levels of lactobacillus.
2. Changing up your vagina after birth
Although researchers aren’t sure why, the bacterial colonies in a woman’s vagina change significantly for up to a year after a woman gives birth. The experts at Stanford think that this may be a way to prevent or at least offer an explanation for preterm labor in closely spaced pregnancies. I can’t help but wonder if the hormones of breastfeeding are related too. (Side note: I’m going to count this as actual, scientific proof that it takes at least a year for our bodies to get back to “normal” after having a baby, so don’t even think about losing weigh until then, ok?)
3. Controlling your placenta
Interestingly enough, the more we learn about the importance of bacteria, the more we learn about the role of bacteria during pregnancy. Last year for example, a study found that bacteria have an incredible impact on the placenta, which then in turn, affects everything about your baby and may also lead to premature birth.
These findings have led doctors to be cautious about overprescribing antibiotics during pregnancy because killing off the good bacteria may be even more dangerous than we previously thought.
4. Laying the groundwork for a lifetime of health
We have a lot of work to do when it comes to how we think about bacteria. We’re so focused on all the ways bacteria are bad for us and how they can literally kill us (and that’s real, don’t get me wrong), that it’s hard to wrap our minds around the latest research that shows that bacteria is actually the real source of our health.
My mind was blown when I realized, for example, that we are made up of about 100 trillion bacteria cells, outnumbering human cells 10 to 1 — meaning, we are more bacteria than human. My first thought was, “how disgusting.” And then my second was, “Dang, I feel a lot less guilty for my kids skipping baths last night.”
But in all seriousness, even something as simple as the way you give birth can affect your baby’s bacterial system, also known as a microbiome. (Your microbiome is like your body’s bacterial “blueprint.”) There has been some evidence that babies get colonized with their mother’s vaginal bacteria on their way of the birth canal. So some mothers have even taken to “seeding” their babies mouths with their vaginal, um, stuff … after a C-section birth.
One doctor who studies infants in Puerto Rico after “seeding,” found positive effects from the process and wonders if “seeding” could possibly help prevent many of the common health conditions seen with C-section babies, such as asthma or obesity. However, she also acknowledges that the vaginal bacteria are “just one part of the process.”
5. Totally taking over your breast milk
If you breastfeed your baby, you may be slightly horrified or pretty fascinated by the fact that your breast milk actually contains over 700 different species of bacteria. That’s a lot of bacteria, guys. Obviously it’s there for a reason and obviously, it has some kind of effect on babies and their own microbiomes, but science still doesn’t quite have all those reasons and effects down yet.
Interestingly enough, this same study found that women who had emergency C-sections had more diverse bacteria than women with planned C-sections, suggesting that something about the labor process actually influences how a woman’s breast milk is developed and what type of bacteria it will form, to then be passed on to her baby.More On