Vaginal Birth Triggers Brain Boost, C-Section Doesn’t: Part of Nature’s Plan for Intelligence?

Along with the cascade of benefits that most Mothering readers already know comes with vaginal birth, new research from Yale has identified yet another: vaginal birth triggers the expression of a protein in baby’s brain cells that optimizes development of the hippocampus — an area central to such “complex behaviors in the adult” as learning, memory, and stress response. C-section delivery may actually impair this protein’s expression.

I find it of interest that earlier this year another study came out linking early nurturing by mothers with larger hippocampal regions in school-aged children. And while the Yale study is very preliminary — using mice, not humans — to me it all points to a notion I hold dear: Nature has an elegant plan for the unfolding of optimal human intelligence (including the required brain structures to mediate that intelligence), and it involves such quaintly natural things as birthing through the birth canal and letting mothers closely nurture their young ones!

Online analyst Jennifer Viegas offers another cool addition to this connect-the-dots big picture of Mother Nature’s lovely plan when she points out that this special protein triggered by vaginal birth (uncoupling protein 2, or UCP2) also which is a key component of breast milk. So first this protein likely aid the infant’s transition to breastfeeding, and it appears to also support “braininess”!

Nature’s Plan for Intelligence?

Many of you are probably familiar with research that has come down the pike linking breastfeeding with higher cognitive function. When looked at through the kind of wide-angle, big-picture lens I’m partial to, it’s like one massive, interrelated, brilliant…plan for intelligence!!

Indeed it is, as well expressed in cover text on early editions of Joseph Chilton Pearce’s book Magical Child, which read, “Nature’s Plan for our Children.” Nature has imbued us with an astonishing suite of biologically- and hormonally-based mechanisms to keep a mother and her baby close and connected, and therefore baby’s (and mom’s!) brain in optimal growth mode. Numerous researchers and theorists have chronicled the connection between infant-mother separation and a cascade of developmental problems, which I list ad nauseum in my book. Pearce has spent much of his professional efforts outlining the perfectly harmonious array of processes nature has provided as an elegant neuro-developmental support plan when we do NOT separate mother and baby, which includes:

  • the neural processing capabilities of the newborn make her seek, make her need, the sight of the human face — at a distance of 12 to 16 inches, precisely the distance between a breastfeeding baby’s eyes and his mother’s face! — as the key referent for both optimal neural development the mirroring attachment duet with her mother
  • we now know that the human heart puts out a measurable energy field that can resonate and entrain with others — and a baby requires entrainment between her own less stable, coherent heart rhythms and those of her mother, such that nature has embedded into humans the world over, irrespective of all variations including dominant handedness — the instinct to hold babies in the left-arm carry position, increasing the proximity of the two hearts to one another, presumably because of both the comforting rhythm the adult heartbeat provides the baby, as well as the optimized “nesting” of baby’s heart field within that of the adult
  • within a very short time (Pearce says forty-five minutes) without the face pattern and the heart entrainment, a baby’s system begins to go into shock, releasing large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which is highly neurotoxic (i.e., it kills brain cells)
  • human breast milk is the lowest in fat and protein (as Pearce puts it, “the weakest, wateriest stuff”) of any in the animal kingdom, requiring frequent feeding which in turn ensures that the face pattern and heart entrainment are reestablished frequently, to maintain homeostasis and optimal neurological, psychological and physiological development

Pearce highlights a further elegant element to this developmental scheme: all of the above are nine-month requirements, needs that go along with the so-called “fourth trimester.” And it is exactly around that age, nine months, when the infant, no longer in need of such concentrated closeness, begins to crawl…away from mother! Amazingly, it is only at around nine months of age that the infant begins to produce stomach HCL — hydrochloric acid — which helps digest protein and fats, with which (when we look at it from an ancient evolutionary standpoint) the baby might come into contact in his adventures “away from mother.” (Can you stand the brilliance of it all??!)

Let’s let baby crawl away from mother on his own terms, when he has become equipped for it at nine months. Let’s not cut him away from her on Day One if we can possibly avoid it. There will always be a small percentage of births in which complications require a C-section. That percentage is anywhere from two to five percent. With the C-section rate soaring into the thirties, here is yet one more compelling reason to stem that red tide: our babies’ optimally developed brains.

Our future citizens’ most flourishing intelligence.


salimfadhley under Creative Commons license

Marcy Axness

About Marcy Axness

I’m the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers,” and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I’m delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on! As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”


14 thoughts on “Vaginal Birth Triggers Brain Boost, C-Section Doesn’t: Part of Nature’s Plan for Intelligence?”

  1. I would like to challenge any of these so called experts to put my emergency C-Sectioned 4 yr old up against ANY vaginally birthed child. She is a calm, loving, smart, funny and active little girl who is so well behaved. I’ve been working with her with numbers, letters, reading, and just basic daily skills and I would be willing to bet she out-performs a majority of children her age and older. I feel like there is already a war between moms who birth “naturally” and those of us who had C-Sections either by way of emergency or otherwise. Enough with the snide “my baby is better than yours” crap. Grow up. This article sounds like it’s really biased based on opinions. Stop studying mice and get out into the real world and study real children.

  2. I have 3 kids. The first came out vaginally and #2 was breech and had to come via c-section. I would have loved to do a natural birth my 3rd time, but where I live they aren’t equipped for that… I left it up in the air. I figured that IF I was meant to deliver vaginally, that #3 would come in the middle of the night and quickly. …..not the case. Regardless, all 3 kids are hilarious, well adjusted and super smart. I feel that there are things that we can’t plan for and THANKFULLY there is modern medicine to help with that. Sure…..delivering vaginally and breast feeding and not working and eating organic and exercising and never getting sick and never being stressed are IDEAL circumstances……but that’s just not how most people live. Some kids are just lucky to have made it into the world where others are much more privileged. …..and sometimes the most privileged have bigger issues. Anyway……it’s just not how we entered the world, it’s the bigger picture that really shapes each one of us. Nurturing in the beginning is essential, but everyone has a unique situation…..and just because one child came into the world in a less ‘desireable’ manner does NOT mean they will suffer from it.

  3. One very IMPORTANT benefit of natural vaginal birth is the transfer of many the mother’s immune system components contained in the vaginal secretions to the baby exposed to these secretions in the birth canal while birthing naturally. Several vaginal secretions are prompted by the birthing process and may have other important functions.

    IMO if a c-section is done please consider smearing the newborns face with these vaginal secretions. Of course the mother should be tested for such noxious things as HIV ect. beforehand.

  4. Actually, we share about 70% of our DNA with mice so it’s not that far off. But, regardless, this post is not about diminishing children born of necessary c-sections (like yours) or saying “my baby is better than yours.” This post is about how can we make birth better for ALL of our children because birth matters. The current social and medical philosophy is that it doesn’t matter. There are many things that we don’t know and interfering with the natural process can have negative consequences that we don’t understand. Many of these won’t show up until our children are adolescents or adults.

    As a parent when we read about experiences that our children may have had that were different from what we may have wished for them, this can feel scary. I encounter this sometimes. But we have to know inside ourselves that we do our very best for our kids with the circumstances that come before us and that our children have their own destiny. All we can do is love them and facilitate their growth as best we can. You little girl is thriving under your care -that’s great. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the responsibility to make conditions better for other mothers and definitely for our daughters – that’s really what this information is about.

  5. Yes, Lou, thank you for bringing up this important angle. In light of findings that babies delivered via C-section may be more prone to health complications, such as asthma, Stanford released a study a couple years back on how babies who miss “the bacterial slide” of vaginal birth have a very different microbe profile. And your suggestion to manually supply some of these microbes to a C-section baby lines up with what Stanford researcher Elizabeth Costello said–about how this all relates to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that the more we restrict our exposure to microbes, the less our immune system understands how to deal with them appropriately. (Like new research finding that the more animals in a baby’s/child’s immediate environment, the fewer health problems they have, such as asthma.) Costello says her research simply shows a difference between the microbes babies are exposed to in the first moments of life, depending on the method by which they were delivered–not a “better” way to birth!

    And I just want to emphasize that this discussion is about the BIG PICTURE, not any one individual — epidemeology, the study of health & disease in POPULATIONS — so I apologize if I inadvertently offended anyone at that level. It was certainly not my intention, although I can understand how it could be taken that way. This is about lifelong effects (into adulthood) of early influences, which are critical for us as a human family to consider as we envision and strategically chart our shared future.

  6. You state: There will always be a small percentage of births in which complications require a C-section. That percentage is anywhere from two to five percent.

    Can you provide the source for your information that c-section is only needed 2-5 percent of the time?


  7. I had a C-section too but I still believe that the claims made in this article are true. I do not believe that the absence of a vaginal birth means that the child will not be smart, just that the mother will have a little more nurturing to do to make up for the missed natural birth. Your girl is so amazing in part because you did the right things with her as her mother. There are plenty of children birthed naturally that will not thrive the way your child has because the parent(s) did not nurture them properly. This article isn’t in any way being snide and saying that one baby is better than another. These are just facts of being a human being. So many C-sections are performed these days that are unnecessary (mine included, although I didn’t find out the truth about that until afterward because our society is trained to believe in our medical practices as being what is best for us no matter what) and articles like these may empower women who don’t have complications that require an emergency C-section to be better-informed and better-equipped to stand up for their right to a natural birth for their sake and for their child’s sake. I wish I had known all that I know now. I believe my baby girl will be fine but I know that I was severely wounded physically and emotionally by a C-section that I didn’t need.

  8. I would have loved to deliver both of my babies vaginally. Unfortunately, when my placenta ruptured during my first pregnancy I had to deliver my daughter via C-section. My second baby came via VBAC. Reading this article just brings back my feelings of disappointment that I delivered my baby via C-section instead of the natural birth I dreamed of. Articles like these make it sound like all C-section babies are going to struggle with everything from learning disabilities to allergies to asthma. Luckily, both of my children are healthy and creative even though they came into this world in drastically different ways. My daughter is living proof that a C-section baby can be as bright as any vaginally-delivered baby.

  9. My son was born surgically fourteen months ago. He has never had an ear infection or any other health complication. Out of a cohort of similarly aged babies that we knew locally, he and the other surgically birthed babies walked first, started signing first, and had the least intolerant guts for the first 9 months.

    I’m not sure if you put my boy in a room with other children of the same age if you could truly pick out which children were born surgically and which were born vaginally. Did we need to give him probiotics? Yeah. It was easy and that’s basically all it took to help get his brand new gut up to code, so to speak.

    I understand that the surgical birth involves a birth that isn’t completely ideal on a biological level (though I would say even that’s in question if it means that or the mom/baby’s life/lives). And I understand our c-section rate is at issue. At the same time, I worry about the extreme emphasis we place on the birth, sometimes, it feels to me, at the expense of the next decades of child-rearing. Is birth important? Absolutely. It is a moment when a new life arrives and a woman births herself from maidenhood to motherhood. It is not simply another day in a woman’s or child’s life.

    At the same time, my birth didn’t go the way I’d hoped and planned for. But, will my son suffer for that the rest of his life? I’m going to say no. Not in our case. As I said, kid’s healthy as a horse and smart as a whip. Could we have had an easier start to life together? Yes. But are we going to struggle to play catch-up in the long term? No. I don’t believe so.

    I would really like to see a study on actual humans that is longitudinal before we go about suggesting or even concluding that children born surgically have “lesser” long term outcomes in terms of cognitive performance, etc than other children.

  10. Heather, thank you for asking for clarification there, which IS needed: 2-5% is for normal, uncomplicated presentations (or “low-risk women”) and that is the oft-named rate in this case, such as in homebirth demographics or decades of data from such populations as Ina May Gaskin’s “The Farm.” When factoring in high-risk women (and oh how I dislike that term, which sounds pejorative, but it’s what’s used) the total rate rises to between 10-15%. That is the percentage given by the World Health Organization.

  11. [Reposting this here as a direct reply to you, Heather — I’m not that savvy about this comment format!!]

    Heather, thank you for asking for clarification there, which IS needed: 2-5% is for normal, uncomplicated presentations (or

  12. No one wants to have a c-section. They are convinced by a harried midwife, nurse or uncaring ob to get out of a hospital labor room that is not paid for while in use. That was my issue. Totally unnecessary c-section for a healthy mom and healthy baby that took ‘too long’ to progress in an unnatural hospital room.

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