Yale Study Shows Possible Brain Benefits from Natural Birth

New research from the Yale School of Medicine found that a certain key protein for neurological development is in higher concentrations in babies born “naturally” (without drugs, vaginally) than those delivered via c-section. Levels of the protein were tracked beyond birth and remained higher in the vaginal birth population.

The study was conducted with mice, so we can’t draw any conclusions from this about brain growth and method of delivery. But I think it’s interesting research for a number of reasons. In a super-reductive nutshell:

Though there’s an idea that babies suffer in childbirth, it may actually be the case that the stress of birth has a positive effect on the baby… like how exercise is good for your brain. There’s some kind of hormonal/chemical experience that the mom and baby go through in an non-medicated/non-surgical birth that may be beneficial for development.

I read earlier this year that babies in an un-medicated birth have lots of oxytocin in their system– the hormone that causes contractions– and that the oxytocin helps sedate the baby’s brain so that it doesn’t need as much oxygen for the period of labor. Pretty cool. There’s also emerging research into the ways newborns benefit from bacteria passed on to them via a vaginal birth– the bacteria passed on from mom can be ideal for the colonizing of the newborn’s gut and this can, in turn, lead to health benefits babies born via c-section may miss out on.

Here’s the conclusion to this study:
“The current data suggests that the induction of Ucp2 [mitochondrial uncoupling protein, an important protein for early neurological development] by birth -associated physiological stress enables metabolic adaptation to a switch available nutrient utilization that is critical for proper survival and development of hippocampal and other brain neurons. Whether impaired Ucp2 induction by non-natural birth or by chemical interference could have long lasting effects on the functioning of the brain is an intriguing and potentially clinically relevant question. Our observation of adult UCP2 KO animals in open field and Y maze tests argue that long lasting effects of impaired UCP2 activity during development may in fact affect complex adult behaviors.”

I think the take-away here is that we have a tad more evidence suggesting there are ways birth triggers chemicals in babies as well as mothers, that can be beneficial or at least a part of human development. The authors note that this study might make people re-think c-sections for no medical reason. But they are clearly at the beginning stages of understanding how this works and these results don’t prove anything.

It’s also worth noting that there are clearly brain benefits to babies born via c-section who would otherwise fare poorly. It’s always a case of weighing risks and benefits. I am more interested in this study for it’s inquiry into how birth works, rather than how a c-section might not work as well… It’s amazing to me sometimes how little we know about this stuff! I’ll be curious to see where this research leads.




Ceridwen Morris (CCE) is a childbirth educator and the co-author of the pregnancy and birth guide From The Hips. Follow her blogging on Facebook.


Article Posted 4 years Ago

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