Community-Based Midwives and Hospital Systems: A Case for Partnership (The Notes)

These notes are extracted from This Article

  • A set of good vitals and an uncomplicated medical history are not remedies for social inequities or lifelong lack of access to healthcare education and navigation, or accessible, timely, effective, and therapeutic interventions.
  • When a patient presents with a medical complication, a midwife can identify it and ensure access to appropriate care if she has access to those who would provide it.
  • The midwifery model of care recognizes that technical improvements in healthcare delivery are irrelevant without addressing the places where unjust and deeply impactful social determinants of health drive the patient’s life experiences.
  • This work [of midwifery care] results in trusting connections between patient and midwife. Indeed, at the time that hospital staff or a physician meets the patient, she may be experiencing a very real grief over the potential change in relationship with her provider and hopes for a unique and well-planned birth experience.
  • No one anticipates that the nurse or physician standing before them will do harm, but how likely is it that they will see you as an ally in their care when you take a stance of juxtaposition and even mockery of the one provider who has ever truly listened to, heard, and understood them?
  • Ignoring or belittling the midwife or any community-based provider for accessing those resources will make them hesitant to enter into the system in the future.  It is this behavior that pushes midwives to move patients further away from safe and timely interventions.
  • However, the ideals of community-based hospitals, so richly developed in many places, is to open the doors and welcome what the community brings, and to share the fullness of knowledge and technology from a place that recognizes the humanity of each patient and the irreducible needs of each person with whom it interacts.
  • …at all points of intersection [of the preventative and therapeutic pathways of care] patient health improves when they can easily step from one to the other as is appropriate for their needs.
  • We know that the impact of technical interventions is effective and wonderful but it is reliant on hospital policies that make these interventions accessible to the community.
  • If we can look together beyond the responsibility of the hospital to the community and financial interest in receiving midwifery patients, here are some ideas that lead to beneficence [see article suggestions]
  • Joining efforts to achieve the common goals of good health and easy, timely access to healthcare resources can only lead to improved outcomes and the development of a model that can truly serve the consumers and the providers in our community.

Community-Based Midwives and Hospital Systems: A Case for Partnership

Click Here to read just the notes from this article

Community-based midwives are held to particular and sometimes unjustifiable standards by the healthcare community.  They are under tremendous pressure to have perfect outcomes while serving the same communities who face the disparities that lead to premature birth, infant mortality, and maternal morbidities experienced so often in the hospital system.  Wanting or needing access to technology and resources is often seen as a failure of the midwife or as a nuisance to the system, even when those same resources which can prevent the same outcomes are distributed in medical care in an effective and timely manner.

The methods and standards by which Midwives determine that a patient is “safe for midwifery care” are not protective against these needs or outcomes.  A set of good vitals and an uncomplicated medical history are not remedies for social inequities or lifelong lack of access to healthcare education and navigation, or accessible, timely, and effective therapeutic interventions.  When well-networked, midwives can be a leverage point for patients to receive guided access to the larger healthcare system.  There they can receive the interventions and medical support necessary to achieve positive outcomes.  In other words, when a patient presents with a medical complication, a midwife can identify it and ensure access to appropriate care if she has access to those who would provide it.

Failure of a patient to stay healthy enough to remain under the sole care of her midwife, or to qualify for an out-of-hospital birth is often seen as both a shame on the patient who could not achieve optimal health or reach her birth goals, and shameful of the midwife.  Midwifery consumers work hard to address their health concerns, and there are times when all of the lifestyle interventions, guidance and education cannot overcome lifelong health disparities. We work hard to prepare for labor and birth and the most common reason we transfer during labor is for a patient who is just tired and needs an epidural, a nap, and will wake up and push her baby out just fine.  This is normal and reasonable and there is no shame in it—either for the patient, who is equally deserving of pain relief and rest as a patient who planned a hospital birth nor for the midwife who supported the efforts and goals of a family.

In community-based midwifery care we use the continuity of carer model, with hour long prenatal visits.  Three-quarters of this time is used to address healthcare prevention, education, and social support.  The midwifery model of care recognizes that technical improvements in healthcare delivery are irrelevant without addressing the places where unjust and deeply impactful emotional and social determinants drive the experience of a patient’s life.  These are the soil in which the patient is growing from and nurturing both herself and her pregnancy in.  These are the hardships, griefs, and burdens of absorbing the responsibilities of her family and community.  These are the anxieties over how to achieve perfection or avoid failure at every turn.  And these are the sheer terror for many due to the likelihood of their pregnancy resulting in their death or the death of their child simply because of the color of their skin.  This is intensive work, achieved on a platform of preventative healthcare that views each mother as vested in her own health and capable of change. It recognizes that she needs access to resources too long withheld and hidden from her until this point and it provides those freely.  This work results in trusting connections between patient and midwife.  Indeed, at the time that hospital staff or a physician meets the patient, she may be experiencing a very real grief over the potential change in this relationship with her provider and hopes for a unique and well-planned birth experience.

When a risk factor develops that requires entry into the hospital system, the patient has an acute sense that they must relinquish emotional and physical safety in healthcare.  This may very well be a contradiction from the midwife’s perspective because we are in the hospital due to a physical safety issue at the direction of the midwife because of her clinical judgment.  However, statistically speaking, every parent this patient knows who has lost a baby was in the hospital when that baby died or had a hospital birth.  Every mother they know who died or was harmed during childbirth was in a hospital when that event occurred.  While these events have been normalized in a broad sense, it is impossible to mitigate the very real fears that arise from personal exposure.  Every social message about the safety, especially of being a black pregnant patient, has taught them that their odds are not very good.  Every cell in their body and that most powerful function of our minds, the implicit memory, brings on a full red-alert for them in that space.  No one anticipates that the nurse or physician standing before them will do harm, but how likely is it that they will see you as an ally in their care when you take a stance of juxtaposition and even mockery of the one provider who has ever truly listened to, heard, and understood them?

We know that once the sympathetic system is activated in this way, people become hyper-alert to whatever is in their realm of focus.  This tunnel-vision is most often directed towards hospital staff—the nurses and doctors who she interacts with in triage before she regains access to a state in which she is ready to learn, engage, and process information.  These are basic principles applicable across many fields of medicine, and even more so when there is a sense of needing to protect one’s baby.

In the instant that you are introduced to the patient, she will see your response to her decision to use midwifery care, she will note how you greet or ignore her midwife, and she will read a thousand cues from your actions and responses.  How you treat the patient for her choices and the midwife for asking for an evaluation or intervention matters.  Her body will decide very quickly:  Fight, Flight, or Rest.  Can you ensure that she is never alone and has her partner or midwife with her at all points during care—especially those first few moments when she is most susceptible to panic?  These first interactions set the table for the rest of the patient stay and experience.

Midwives have extensive training and evaluate ongoing data sets from blood work, ultrasounds, clinic visits, and interactions over many weeks or months of care. She is in your hospital because she wants to be—because you are a resource and have access to resources her patient needs.  Like any community-based or rural provider, she relies on you, on hospital staff, systems, and technology to be there when her patients need it.  Ignoring or belittling the midwife or any community-based provider for accessing those resources will make them hesitant to enter into the system in the future.  It is this behavior that pushes midwives to move patients further away from safe and timely interventions.

The burden of community-based hospitals is to receive what the community brings and to provide basic medical care.  However, the ideals of community-based hospitals, so richly developed in many places, is to open the doors and welcome what the community brings, and to share the fullness of knowledge and technology from a place that recognizes the humanity of each patient and the irreducible needs of each person with whom it interacts.

The work of community-based midwives exists on the preventative pathway of maternal child healthcare.  The work of hospitals and obstetrics is on the therapeutic pathway of maternal child healthcare.  There are many opportunities for these pathways to cross, and at all points of intersection patient health improves when they can easily step from one to the other as is appropriate for their needs.

Midwives and the families and communities we serve are your families and your communities.  We share the work of seeking health and access to healthcare for all people.  We know that the impact of technical interventions is effective and wonderful but it is reliant on hospital policies that make these interventions accessible to the community.

We understand that relationships between community-based healthcare providers like midwives can be seen through a transactional lens—and if so, then view the midwives as great business.  They rarely bring a patient who does not require interactions and interventions that are highly billable and great for the bottom line.  We must address the scarcity mindset—that somehow allowing midwives to access resources will play a role in the diminishing of patient numbers for the hospital.  The number of patients that midwives see is negligible to larger healthcare institutions.  As stated, the patients midwives do bring in for care will typically increase the hospital census and income.  While this is a very low-level view of the potential relationship between the hospital and community-based midwives, it is very real and just fine to rely on.

If we can look together beyond the responsibility of the hospital to the community and financial interest in receiving midwifery patients, here are some ideas that lead to beneficence:

  • You receive patients every day who arrive in labor, screaming and incoherent, possibly drug-addicted. You have no history, no labs, no ultrasounds and no idea who that patient is.  You follow your guidelines and do the best you can for them.  Midwifery patients arrive with loads of documentation.  They come in with labs, ultrasounds, a known history, and notes about how this patient learns best and the stressors and norms of their lives.  That is a lot to work from! Use your guidelines and do the best you can for them, too.
  • Greet patients warmly regardless of where they arrive from. Use simple statements that have been shown to be effective in other teaching hospitals, “I’m so glad you are here today.  I see you were receiving your care from a midwife so this might all be new to you.  I want to assure you we are going to do our best for you today” or “I see you were in the middle of a planned homebirth.  I’m sorry that didn’t go as you wanted it to.  We are going to do the best we can for you here today”.
  • Greet the midwife with kindness—she will expect you to take the lead. She has decided based on clinical information or a concern that this patient is safer with access to you and the resources that you have. Talking to her about your thoughts and plans (when it is not an emergency) or being inclusive will help foster good will with the patient and out in the community
  • Adapt policies to allow consulting, referring, partnership and education for community-based physicians to include midwifery-led clinics. Seek community rotations in midwifery clinics for your residents.  Learning from and with each other allows providers to get to know each other and deconstruct ideas of “other” so common from both sides to this relationship.
  • Provide credentialing for Nurse Midwives who operate in community-based clinics so that they can follow patients and manage care for those that want to plan or are in need of a hospital birth

Joining efforts to achieve the common goals of good health and easy, timely access to healthcare resources can only lead to improved outcomes and the development of a model that can truly serve the consumers and the providers in our community. To learn more about midwives in your area, and to find out how your institution can ensure easy access to resources for the community, contact your local midwifery-led clinic or midwives association.

 

 

Access in Healthcare

I have several posts written that haven’t been posted.  This is partly due to me trying to find my space in this new space, and partly because as we learn about and settle into a new practice in a new community, there is not much time for editing.  This article is from March of 2018 and examines our model of care through the lens of one of our programs, group prenatal care.  This program and many of the classes that spin off of requests made in the group, are open to all families, even if they are not in our care.  If you are in Memphis and want to join us for a program or come into care, please contact me.

As a community-based midwife I have been drawn to, pulled, and stewed in the places where midwifery and public health come together like a heated 32-beat tango.  Connected, dependent, free-spirited in nature yet grounded in science, this form of perinatal healthcare is my deepest heart’s work.  In Seattle our clinic, situated in the heart of a medically underserved neighborhood, was founded with the basic premise that we could reimagine healthcare.  The families, colleagues, health systems, and communities that participate in the care are committed to this mindset or to providing space within a more rigid system where we can explore the outer bounds of our ideas.  That organization continues to evolve and stretch into places and ways of being present for families and communities that astound me.  There are other midwifery-led clinics innovating and serving their communities around the US. Midwives are busy people, working through the wee hours trying to make a dent in maternal and infant health outcomes. In Memphis I am again working in an environment where that element of possibility leads us forward and exposes innovations as they naturally arise from our efforts to meet the needs of the families we serve.

Over and over again, wherever I am, I am taught a singular lesson about imagination and healthcare.  I am taught to follow my commitment to seek the strength and health of families I serve, even when it is not arranged as we are told it should be. When I first learned about labor I understood it to come in phases and stages which one neatly progresses through.  My doula certification required rote memorization of these steps, the signs of each one, and how to provide physical and emotional comfort and support for the pregnant person through labor and birth.  Yet I did not attend my first birth as a trained doula.  I sat in a small hospital birthing center with my brother and sister-in-law while they labored and birthed my nephew.  It was not my response to the phases and stages that provided her comfort.  It was my presence and attunement with her and my brother, my faith in her abilities, my interest in seeing my brother become a father from a place of strength, and my keen sense of wanting her to have a meaningful and timeless experience that mattered.  This experience was the first of many that taught me to look at pregnancy, birth, and early parenting as equally whole, layered, complex, and varied as the mothers and fathers I served. As equally needful of a response that understood both the expected norms and the reality and potential of the person in front of me.  I have witnessed alchemy a thousand and thousand times.  A shifting, morphing, and transforming moment.  Sometimes it is in prenatal care when a connection is made, sometimes during labor when the power of contractions takes a mother away from us and she retreats to a private universe, sometimes when she breathes her first breath as a mother to her baby now here, warm in her arms.

The science of pregnancy and birth is remarkable.  It allows us to support, aid, and even rescue mothers and babies every day.  As providers what do we have to learn from but the tools we are given?  Our books, our lectures, our machines that keep us moving in linear phases and stages through expected norms.  Those great teachers of mine gave and continue to give me command of the skills I need to care for families safely during their perinatal year.  But those other great teachers—the mothers, the fathers, the babies—they have informed me too.  From them I learned that the work I feel pulled to—this creation of micro-systems where families don’t just survive but really thrive and come into their fullness does not exist or occur in a linear progression.  It lives in the expansive reaches of our imagination.

It lives in discarding programs and services that always meet the needs of a linear and ordered system but rarely the true needs of the people in it. 

For many years I have run models of group pregnancy and postpartum care.  I have tested and tried curricula written by organizations committed to improving maternal and infant outcomes.  They have demonstrated success in these important areas.  The organizations that designed them have a lot of rules—so many people need to be present, they all need to be pregnant within about the same gestational age, they are assigned topics and facilitated, there is required attendance at a specified number of groups, they replace the individual visits with the midwife or doctor.  This makes perfect sense if we are trying to facilitate a group that teaches to the phases and stages of pregnancy and birth.  It makes perfect sense if we read any of the text books.  They all highlight “expected changes at this time” by trimester.  Naturally, we group pregnant people together who are the same gestational age experiencing the same changes.  We can conveniently teach to these issues and this does provide a kind of comfort—knowing that you are not alone in your changes and learning to adapt to them.  However, I have never been able to exactly stick to the prescription or the curriculum.  Usually because someone wants to participate but for work or life or financial reasons they can only get to a group that is running at a certain time.

Not the group they are slotted to, but to the group that is accessible when they can access it.

People arrive to group care full of ideas, needs, and questions that are totally unrelated to any prescribed content.  So what if the curriculum is the content of their lives in that moment? Ours is.

Now buckle up, I’ve said this before but let’s discover what it means:

When it comes to maternal and infant health,

there are only no answers if all of the answers are “no”.

If you are running a community-based clinic which fundamentally believes in access to care and services, you say yes a lot.  You say yes when the curriculum says no. You say yes when it means someone is going to skip a phase or jump over half of the progression.  You say yes when someone can come tonight but not again for six months.  You say yes when someone has never shown up but wants to sit in group now.  You say yes when a grandmother-to-be shows up with her pregnant child to explore this new model of care.  You say yes when a patient calls and tells you their car won’t start and they are out of money and they need a ride—even when it means the group will wait an extra five minutes to start. You say yes when a new mom shows up because she was lonely and knew that there was a prenatal group today.  You say yes because connection is the remedy for isolation and prevents depression, and her mental health matters.  You say yes because her presence there teaches the expecting mothers about what it looks like to care for a baby over the course of two hours in ways you could never script.  You say yes because someone else, maybe even someone else’s grandmother will hold and rock and walk that baby and tell her what a good job she’s doing.  You say yes because there are not limits on your imagination and you don’t see the people who come into care as limited, as broken, as needy, as powerless.  Your system does not rely on anything that resembles a normal healthcare delivery experience.  Why should it?  You are unbound so you are allowed to follow the dictates of the moment, the needs of the individual, the kindness that needs to manifest from your own heart.  And you are unbound so you can think with curiosity about the clinical presentation of disease, disorder, and dysfunction.  You are unbound so you can think about prevention and isolating a remedy that leads to health and not merely symptom management.

You can accomplish all of this in deep partnership with patients, clients, and their family members. 

And here’s what I’ve learned from saying yes.  As a provider, it is no toll on me to do so.  I don’t mean to be romantic about it–this is hard work.  It is also a remedy, a boon, and a manifestation of my humanity.  The people I work with feel the same way.  They are fanned out all over the city right now as you’re reading this bringing food, giving rides, sitting and listening, available, and present.  And in this example, of group prenatal care that evolves into group perinatal, parenting, god-parenting, and grand-parenting care, each person present feels their experience reflected in the shifting, morphing, and transforming moments of others.

We are learners and teachers, we are wise and vested and new and afraid.  We see where we are going, we feel where we have come from, we sit where we are.

We recognize the suffering and joy in others and freely bestow and receive compassion in that space.  This is a platform for health.  This is our platform for healthcare.  And this is one reason why I believe families in our care emerge with health outcomes that do not reflect the societal norms even though they have extraordinary life stressors. They are at risk for all of the risks, yet they very rarely manifest any of them.  This form of midwifery exists at the intersection of love and justice and healthcare.  It is not about leveraging the cost of healthcare, though it costs less. It is not about the birth. It is about good and even robust physical, emotional, and mental health where the right kind of birth in the right place for each family is the natural outcome of a platform where every idea has the potential to become a solution and every person is worthy of our best yes.

GBS Prevention

Read the long article

See the Infographics up-close

This post examines the role of preventative health care in the inhibition of Group B Streptococcus (GBS) infection.  It uses the term “mother” for simplicity’s sake although babies have all kinds of parents who identify in all kinds of ways and all are welcome here.

Let’s break down the long article:

Infections resulting from GBS  can be life-threatening to a newborn.  All pregnant moms are offered a test which detects this bacteria around 36 weeks of pregnancy.  If found, it can be treated through the use of IV antibiotics during labor, which significantly reduces the rate of infection and resulting meningitis and/or sepsis in newborns. While this article does not focus on the treatment of women who test positive, it does promote prevention, which improves the overall health of both mom and baby through the use of probiotics taken orally throughout the pregnancy.  These come in tiny capsules or a liquid packed with powerful lactobaccili (among other gut-friendly bacterium) that usually cost between five and twenty dollars per bottle or package).  It’s a small price to pay for so many amazing benefits.  As a midwife, I often pay for them for clients because of the massive health benefits of these supplements to every mom and baby, including avoiding a host of obstetric complications that would increase risks to mom and baby and often require transfers out of my care.  Great midwifery promotes the intrinsic health of mother and baby through programs like this which lend greatly to positive birth outcomes.

Let’s explore just some of the many benefits:

The Mother

Take a look at what the microbiota is if you aren’t already familiar with it.  The use of probiotics promotes this system that does a bit of everything good in the body including prevent the over-colonization of “bad” bacteria like GBS.  It also happens to prevent diabetes and keep your mood even.  It exists in the mouth, gut, and vagina of the mom and the placenta (and some studies found evidence in the fetal gut as well).

Over the course of pregnancy, the levels of good bacteria in the microbiota change.  By the time you give birth, you have an over-growth of lactobacilli which ensures that your baby will get exposure to this important “good” bacteria during vaginal birth.  When the system is supported right it will also prevent yeast infections, and keep the bacteria that cause UTIs and GBS in check.

The Baby

Impaired levels of probiotics have been correlated to preterm birth.   They are correlated because “bad” bacteria like GBS and candida (yeast) cause cellular damage to the cervix.  It loses its integrity and is not able to hold in the pregnancy as long as it should.  There are dramatic consequences for being born too early—the March of Dimes was founded because of babies born too early or too small.

When mothers take probiotics, they are found in the placenta and fetal gut and stay with the baby after birth to help regulate the baby’s microbiota.  That’s profound!!  You can help your baby synthesize vitamins and amino acids, regulate immune function, have smoother transitions between emotional states, and get a balanced healthy start just by taking probiotics during pregnancy.  After pregnancy, breast milk takes over the important function of populating the baby’s microbiota with everything it needs.

What Matters

  • Take probiotics throughout pregnancy to help keep your body hostile to “bad” bacteria and to strengthen the integrity of your tissue (muscles and skin included), especially uterine tissue like the cervix (and to boost your immune system, keep your mood even, etc., etc., and etc.!)
  • If you are planning a VBAC this winds up mattering a lot. Infections like candida and GBS can wear down the tissue that you are relying on to keep the scarred area strong and healthy.  Take a full dose of 4 probiotic capsules per day for your entire pregnancy.  I have supported an extremely high percentage of VBACing moms in my practice and this statement is NOT a judgment about your scar.  It is part of a recipe that will contribute to your overall success.  Check out this article for more ideas from the VBAC playbook or contact me to discuss further.
  • Have a vaginal, antibiotic free birth for maximum exposure to lactobacilli
  • Ask your provider ahead of time about swabbing your vaginal tract during labor prior to any antibiotics if you need them for any reason (including a planned or unplanned cesarean birth)
  • Regardless of how you deliver your baby, spend time skin to skin with her or him. Allow them to touch your breasts and arm pits with their hands.  You have lactobacilli on your skin that they will benefit from
  • Breastmilk feeds babies and promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in baby’s own microbiota, boosting their immune system and setting them up for good health
  • Babies born to a mom who had to take antibiotics or who were born by cesarean or who drink formula exclusively or as a supplement can all be given oral probiotics. They are available with a dropper or can be mixed into breast milk or formula and given through a bottle or made into a paste (just break open a capsule and add one drop of water at a time, mixing with your finger) and applied to mom’s nipples which is both soothing and healthy for the breast

Some disclaimers and information of note

  • The recommendations in this article are not designed to cheat a test but to actually improve the health of the mother, the integrity of the cervix, and the health of the placenta, fetus and newborn
  • Taking probiotics is not a guarantee of avoiding GBS or other complications related to imbalanced or missing gut flora. Talk with your provider about nutritional measures you can take to support your over-all health.  No amount of probiotics or exercise can undo the effects of a diet high in sugar and processed foods
  • Do get tested between 35 and 37 weeks for GBS. If you still test positive after a sustained period of time taking probiotics, eating a diet low in processed sugars and carbs, and rich in food that looks like it was alive, the colonization is highly likely to be one that needs antibiotic treatment. A pregnant woman who tests positive for group B strep bacteria and gets antibiotics during labor has only a 1 in 4,000 chance of delivering a baby with group B strep disease. If a pregnant woman who tests positive for group B strep bacteria does not get antibiotics at the time of labor, her baby has a 1 in 200 chance of developing group B strep disease.
  • If GBS is found in your Urine during pregnancy, antibiotics can eliminate or greatly reduce the high colonization. Take probiotics at the same time as you take antibiotics and for the rest of your pregnancy.  The CDC recommends that anyone with GBS in their urine at any point during their pregnancy receive antibiotics during labor
  • Please discuss this information with your provider and work together to find a solution that is right for you. If your provider does not have time to discuss this or other preventative measures with you, there are plenty that will and I highly recommend you shop for the one who will serve you best

Capture

You can see the source for these infographics and get an up-close view by clicking here

Share your thoughts on preventative health care during pregnancy and your comments and questions below!

Additional Resources

Microbiota/Microbiome and Pregnancy/Birth/Breastfeeding

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4943946/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4464665/

https://www.amazon.com/Your-Babys-Microbiome-Critical-Breastfeeding/dp/1603586954

https://www.amazon.com/Microbiome-Effect-Affects-Future-Health/dp/178066270X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490123008&sr=1-2

Preterm Birth

http://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/premature-babies.aspx

Group B Strep Disease

https://www.groupbstrepinternational.org/

GBS Prevention: The Real Deal (an article)

The stakes are high. With all of the science supporting the idea that we can impact outcomes through simple and inexpensive measures, we cannot disregard the first and best options we have to address a disease. And especially where that prevention, aimed at reducing illness for the baby will also dramatically improve the health of the mother.

This is a long article y’all and way past the normal blog length acceptable in the blogosphere….however, you’ll find all of the background information, standards of care, reasoning for examining a new model and solutions for dramatically improving the health of mother and baby long after the relatively brief moment of pregnancy and birth have passed. This model is the real deal.  It provides preventative, protective, and health sustaining treatment for all instead of treating a disease process when symptoms become present in some.  I hope you enjoy the ideas and look forward to your thoughts and input.

If you are already worried I am going to recommend against treating GBS+ moms you can take a quick look at these important notes.

Looking for an upclose of those infographics?

Looking for a short-winded version of this article?

The Issue

Over colonization of the bacteria Group B Streptococcus (GBS) can cause a life threatening infection in newborns.  Most expecting families hear about this at the 36 week visit when they are asked to consent to a test for this bacteria.  If found, antibiotics are delivered through an IV during labor which greatly reduces the baby’s chance of exposure.  Many midwives share the fact that this bacterium is transient and can come and go so the test may be unreliable.  They may offer alternative treatments and discuss the low odds of babies who are exposed actually getting sick in an effort to consider antibiotic over-exposure.  Some providers might scare the living daylights out of their patients with images of weak, mewing infants suffering from high fevers and a very difficult disease to treat in an effort to ensure treatment is given.  Neither is wrong.  On one end the use of antibiotics reduces bacterial diversity in both mother and baby and can cause resistance to antibiotics later in life.  On the other end is the prospect of a disease where the only option once infection sets in is antibiotics and sometimes they are not enough to save the life of a sick newborn.  The cost to a newborn who experiences GBS disease is extraordinary.  The cost to a family who has a seriously ill baby or who lose a baby is immeasurable.  This disease starts with the presence of normal bacteria, progresses to an overgrowth of those bacteria, which progresses to exposure and then transfer and then a normal or a sick newborn.  Every baby at the start of pregnancy is looking a road that might lead to a GBS infection.  So one must ask, is there an answer that might keep babies safely at the start of that road with no progression on the continuum?  This article seeks to look at one answer that gives each baby a high chance of avoiding the long walk towards infection.

The Platform

I would like to reframe how we view testing and treatment of GBS and look at front-line prevention as first-line treatment.  This is to say that medical providers are trained to diagnose and treat, but as the keeper of your and your baby’s body (or your client’s or patient’s for providers), prevention is actual medicine.  The stakes are high.  With all of the science supporting the idea that we can impact outcomes through simple and inexpensive measures, we cannot disregard the first and best options we have to address a disease process.  And especially where that prevention, aimed at reducing illness for the baby will also dramatically improve the health of the mother. Our checklist for GBS management and testing in pregnancy should be:

  1. Recommend quality probiotics high in lactobacilli at first encounter, 1 cap 3-4 times daily
  2. Swab as normal between 35-37 weeks
  3. If antibiotics are given in labor advise to start probiotics as soon as possible.

The Mother

There are hundreds of articles available that help explain and define the microbiome, but in short each of us has a unique microbial population that includes bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses.  This whole system is referred to as the microbiota and is located in the mouth, gut, vagina, and placenta.  It is responsible to:

  • Digest and absorb nutrients
  • Synthesize vitamins and amino acids
  • Prevent pathogenic colonization (this is important to our discussion of GBS)
  • Regulate immune function
  • Modulate hormone release in the gastro-intestinal tract which for example helps prevent diabetes
  • Regulates mood and behavior through production of serotonin

(Kristensen et al. Genome Med. 2016; 8:52)

From this short list, one can easily see the massive importance of working right from the start of pregnancy (or long before, ideally) on balancing the microbiota in order to achieve optimal health in the mother.  Additionally, the changes in a healthy microbiota that occur from the first to the third trimester are dramatic and much needed for the health of mother and baby.  While the baby is often the focus of GBS discussions, the mother is a worthy and whole person, deserving of high regard for all that she is and does.  She is far too often viewed merely as a vessel we must sustain until she delivers the human baby who is the real focus of pregnancy and birth.  I have seen first-hand over and over again that when we take excellent physical and emotional care of the mother, the baby thrives.    Even in high risk pregnancies, carrying a baby does not supersede a woman’s autonomy over her own body, her needs, or her desire to be heard, felt, and understood.   It’s an archaic rite of passage that we feel compelled to remind her that, “it’s not about her anymore.”  It is deeply, deeply about her.  It is deeply, deeply about baby.  It is deeply, deeply about how they are together, and how they are separate.  The mother provides the building blocks of the placenta through her well-being.  The baby relies on that placenta for his or her well-being.  The baby experiences the hormones of the mother’s emotional states and learns from the patterns of stress and recovery she teaches during pregnancy.   A mother’s mental health has long term effects on both her and baby.  The question is, how can we promote the optimal physical and mental health of both?  How can we prevent disease for both?

Addressing gut-flora health will absolutely improve the fundamental health of the mother and therefore the health of the placenta and the baby.  During the third trimester levels of lactobacilli naturally rise and even over-grow to ensure exposure for the baby while protecting against bacterial and viral infections in the vaginal tract.  This entire system is its own natural pharmacy when supported correctly.

The Baby

Several studies suggest that impaired levels of probiotics in the vagina correlate with preterm birth.  This is because of the cellular damage that an abundance of harmful bacteria can cause to the strength and integrity of the cervix.  This includes yeast infections and GBS infections as well as STI’s.  Babies born too early or too small are at risk for a number of poor outcomes, including being three times as likely to die within the first year of life than a baby born at term.  You can read more about the effects of preterm birth here.

In her talk entitled “No Guts, No Glory: The Microbiome in Diabetes,” Meghan Jardine, M.S., M.B.A., R.D., L.D., D.D.E. notes that the critical shapers of gut biology are:

  • Natural delivery
  • Breast milk fed babies have probiotics
  • Formula fed babies have reduced/missing probiotics
  • By the time the child is 3 years old the gut composition is established
  • Over time, our environment continues to change our microbiota

A well designed 2012 study showed that taking probiotics during pregnancy affected the placenta and fetal gut and even the regulation of the infant’s microbiota. (Rautava S, Collado MC, Salminen S, Isolauri E. Neonatology. 2012; 102(3):178-84.)  Exposure also seems to correlate with reduced allergic diseases like eczema.

Mode of Birth and Feeding

Exposure to probiotics taken orally by the mother can be seen in the placenta and meconium of the fetus during pregnancy.  That said, the two most important factors found to shape the infant gut microbiota are mode of birth (vaginal vs cesarean) and feeding (breastmilk vs formula).

The overgrowth of lactobacilli in the vagina provides essential exposure for the baby to lactobacilli during vaginal births.  Babies do not get this exposure during a cesarean birth.  Many hospitals are swabbing mom’s vaginal area prior to cesarean birth in order to be able to transfer lactobacilli from the mom to the baby.  (Dominguez-Bello MG, et al. JC Nat Med. 2016 Mar; 22(3):250-3.) Be sure to swab well before the administration of any antibiotics given prior to surgery.  Exposing baby to the skin of the mother under her breasts and armpits during skin to skin time and breastfeeding over the first months of life help increase exposure. Additionally, babies born by cesarean who are breastfed should receive oral probiotics for the first four months of life.

The most abundant organisms in breast-fed infant guts are not the same as those found in formula-fed babies (Balmer SE, Wharton BA. Arch Dis Child. 1989 Dec; 64(12):1672-7.)  Breastmilk has elements which promote and nourish healthy bacteria in the baby’s gut.  Breastmilk feeds both the baby and the bacteria.  Babies who are formula fed should receive probiotics orally to help promote the growth of a healthy microbiota.

Prevention

As noted in the beginning of this article, prevention of GBS over-colonization should be seen as the first and best method to stop the long walk to full blown GBS disease.  In addition to preventing GBS exposure for babies, we can help maintain healthy microbiota and all of the benefits for mother, placenta, and baby that are the natural outcomes of that system.  In our day-to-day healthcare regimens, we should all be taking probiotics.  Every provider should be recommending probiotics along with a high quality prenatal vitamin at the first visit.  In an early release of data comparing midwifery care to OB care there was a very large difference in the number of patients who tested GBS positive between the two groups.  The numbers are still being teased out but one theory is the normalcy of midwives recommending probiotics to all patients.  (will update when final numbers are published)

The Solution

  • Take a daily form of probiotics (take 1-4 capsules per day) containing anywhere from 10-25 billion units of mixed flora but with high amounts of bacilli noted (available in grocery stores, Super Supplements or the Vitamin Shoppe).
  • Reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates you eat. GBS is a bacteria that tends to like sugary environments, and seems to colonize where there are not sufficient lactobacilli to keep it at bay.
  • Help keep your vaginal tract acidic and hostile to bacteria by taking probiotics and Azo Cranberry capsules (take one in the morning and one at night). Do not drink cranberry juice as the added sugar causes more harm than the cranberries help.

The Notes

  • The recommendations in this article are not designed to cheat a test but to actually improve the health of the mother, the integrity of the cervix, and the health of the placenta, fetus and newborn
  • Taking probiotics is not a guarantee of avoiding GBS or other complications related to imbalanced or missing gut flora. Talk with your provider about nutritional measures you can take to support your over-all health.  No amount of probiotics or exercise can undo the effects of a diet high in sugar and processed foods
  • Do get tested between 35 and 37 weeks for GBS. If you still test positive after a sustained period of time taking probiotics, eating a diet low in processed sugars and carbs, and rich in food that looks like it was alive, the colonization is highly likely to be one that needs antibiotic treatment. A pregnant woman who tests positive for group B strep bacteria and gets antibiotics during labor has only a 1 in 4,000 chance of delivering a baby with group B strep disease. If a pregnant woman who tests positive for group B strep bacteria does not get antibiotics at the time of labor, her baby has a 1 in 200 chance of developing group B strep disease.
  • If GBS is found in your Urine during pregnancy, antibiotics can get the high colonization in check. Take probiotics at the same time as you take antibiotics and for the rest of your pregnancy.  The CDC recommends that anyone with GBS in their urine at any point during their pregnancy receive antibiotics during labor
  • Please discuss this information with your provider and work together to find a solution that is right for you. If your provider does not have time to discuss this or other preventative measures with you, there are plenty that will and I highly recommend you shop for the one who will serve you best

Additional Resources

Microbiota/Microbiome and Pregnancy/Birth/Breastfeeding

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4943946/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4464665/

https://www.amazon.com/Your-Babys-Microbiome-Critical-Breastfeeding/dp/1603586954

https://www.amazon.com/Microbiome-Effect-Affects-Future-Health/dp/178066270X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490123008&sr=1-2

Preterm Birth

http://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/premature-babies.aspx

Group B Strep Disease

https://www.groupbstrepinternational.org/