mother with c-section scar and children
Photo: Getty Images

No, C-section babies don’t do worse at school – now quit the birth shaming

A new study of NZ children has found no link between birth type and test scores. That’s no surprise, says Emily Writes, so why do many new mums still have to put up with being judged?

While pregnant with my first baby and attending antenatal classes, I was introduced to a new fear – the dreaded C-section. In hushed tones, our birth educators talked about how we must avoid interventions, lest we needed a caesarean. It was the start of what is a journey for many soon-to-be mothers into birth shaming.

When one of our antenatal cohort pressed the volunteers to tell us why caesareans were so bad, we were told the recovery was terrible (nothing was said about the long-term injuries from vaginal birth) and that our babies wouldn’t get “good bacteria”.

Without “good bacteria” they were destined for a shallow life of failure. They wouldn’t thrive and would probably vote Act. We as mothers would fail in our most important act – sharing vaginal juice with our offspring. They would never, ever do well at school because cervix sauce is the key to academic achievement.

Well, a new University of Auckland study has revealed the thoroughly unsurprising fact that kids born via caesarean section have just as good NCEA results as vaginally birthed babies.

Those carrying out the study, published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, said “C-section babies often have different microbes in their gut, which researchers suspected might influence their academic performance through a unique link between the gut and brain”.

However, the study, which looked at more than 111,000 New Zealand children, found “no link between birth type and test scores” – hopefully going some way to shutting up assholes who judge mothers who have belly births.

The study said concern about the impact of caesarean sections on later health and cognitive outcomes has led to the increased practice of swabbing caesarean-delivered infants with maternal vaginal fluid. This is happening despite a lack of scientific consensus.

“The question remains whether even a transient alteration in the gut microbiota caused by caesarean delivery could have longer-lasting effects on cognitive development that persist across childhood. One would expect that if this were the case then these changes would be detectable in educational outcomes measured years after delivery. It is therefore important that the outcomes of caesarean delivery are investigated to determine whether there is an association with later developmental outcomes.”

The study concluded, “While mode of delivery may impact early patterns of gut colonisation, it remains to be proven that this in turn has a meaningful impact on later cognitive and educational outcomes in humans.”

The idea of “good bacteria” being supposedly absent during caesarean deliveries is still being used to scare mums before and after births, if women spoken to by The Spinoff is anything to go by. Stephanie Finch had two breech babies born by caesarean. They’re happy and healthy and she had no issues with recovery. Still, she took on the “good bacteria” messaging, for a while at least.

“I had read about all the good bacteria they wouldn’t receive and I did worry about that stuff but there were so many other things to beat myself up about I moved on quite quickly.”

She said the study sounded reassuring. “It’s a relief to know I didn’t mess them up before I’d even been introduced to them!”

Krista Redd, who gave birth to her daughter by caesarean, thought the study was absurd, however. “Birth method has nothing to do with intelligence or academic performance. It makes no sense that someone would even make that connection. My kid was reading by age three. It has everything to do with how parents treat education and how much they encourage their children.”

Many mothers I spoke to said they felt judged for having a caesarean despite having no choice in the way they birthed. The role of medical professionals in supporting new mothers after birth is crucial, and this study may go some way to providing reassurance.

Anna Beth said she received comments about her caesarean from “a lot of people but not by anyone I cared about”.

She says a junior obstetrician told her she would regret not trying to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) and that it was a “cop-out”.

“But my GP was very reassuring, saying that nobody looks at a child and can tell what sort of birth they had, and empowered me to make the choice that was right for my mental and physical health. Recently, I said I had two sections and someone said, ‘oh, so you didn’t give birth’, and that gave me pause, so I said ‘I had a tummy birth’.

Angela Cook has two sets of twins. Her first-born twins were delivered by emergency caesarean and then her second pair were born by acute caesarean after she went into labour early before her planned c-section.

“I had a student obstetrician suggest I’d be unhappy to not try for a VBAC – that was shut down very quickly by the actual obstetrician. I did have a mum at kindy wonder if it felt like they were all ‘really mine, as I didn’t actually give birth to them’.

Changing the way we view caesareans – seeing them as the life-saving interventions that they are – and using inclusive language around birth may also help. Belly birth and tummy birth are becoming popular terms for caesareans, as is describing so-called “natural” births as “vaginal” instead.

At least, with this study at least, one method of shaming can be put to bed.




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