There are many things a woman can do to promote a healthy pregnancy including taking folic acid, limiting caffeine and maintaining healthy weight, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

These are great tips, but there’s one thing that’s conspicuously absent — caring for the gut health of mom and her baby.

This first of a two-part series discusses the growing number of studies that show how promoting good gut health benefits moms before their babies are born.

Once upon a time

To appreciate the importance of the microbiome to the health of newborns, it’s important to understand that scientists believed — not so long ago — that the mother’s womb was a sterile environment, and babies acquired the beneficial bacteria needed to survive after they were born.

More recent studies have found the exact opposite: Babies may be “seeded” with beneficial bacteria important to their long-term health.

Why more expecting mothers are taking probioticsAlthough science is still figuring out how those healthy bacteria get to the unborn fetus via mom’s microbiome, many experts agree that exposure to bacteria does the both a world of good, from teaching the growing immune system how to recognize and handle pathogens to fighting diseases.

In fact, Dr. Josef Neu, a University of Florida pediatrician, is one of a growing number of experts who believe premature births can be reduced, merely by fetuses having healthy amounts of beneficial bacteria.

Even more important, should harmful bacteria attack the fetus, Dr. Neu and others believe an immune reaction is triggered sending the mother into premature labor, not good for the health of mom and her infant.

Dr. Neu’s solution, as told to the New York Times, is giving moms a “microbial cocktail,” something that sounds a lot like taking a probiotic. In this scenario, doctors could prescribe specific species to protect the fetus from infections or premature delivery.

Probiotics and preeclampsia

A huge concern all new moms have is bringing their babies into the world on time and with as few problems as possible.

Preeclampsia, a serious complication affecting blood pressure with damage to kidneys or other organs, is one of those obstacles that prevent a full-term birth, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The treatment of preeclampsia can be problematic. If left untreated, mom and her baby can face serious or fatal health consequences. The only “cure,” the Mayo Clinic says, is delivering a baby. But, what if that preeclampsia diagnosis comes too early in the baby’s fetal development?

Taking a daily probiotic may not cure preeclampsia. However, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that monitored the health of more than 33,000 Norwegian women, probiotics lessened the risks of preeclampsia by up to 39 percent in some cases.

Taking a lactobacilli-laced probiotic every day was linked to a 20 percent decrease in the risk of preeclampsia, and a steeper 39 percent drop in a more severe form of the disease.

Scientists hypothesize that probiotics may lessen inflammation levels (a possible trigger for the disease) or have an effect on human placental trophoblasts (cells that form the outside layer of the blastocyst that provides nutrients to the embryo and develop into a large part of the placenta).

Bacterial warning signs

There’s more good news related to mom’s microbiome that may provide early warning signs of premature birth, according to preliminary research conducted by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and University of Maryland.

Investigators took vaginal swabs from pregnant women during two time periods — late second trimester (20-24 weeks) and early third trimester (24-28 weeks) — then compared the kinds of bacteria (called community state type or CST) taken from moms who gave birth at full term versus those who gave birth prematurely.

“The percent of non-CST III was significantly lower in samples from women delivering preterm than term. Notably, the differences in these microbial communities were evident in the late second trimester of pregnancy, weeks if not months prior to the preterm birth,” said Dr. Michael Elovitz, director of the Maternal and Child Health Research Program at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“This study is the first to report such key differences in the CV (cervicovaginal) microbial communities weeks prior to preterm birth. If differences in the CV microbial communities are confirmed, then new and exciting therapeutic strategies will emerge to prevent preterm birth.”

Although they weren’t identified as a strategy in this recent study, taking a multi-strain probiotic like EndoMune Advanced Probiotic remains the safest and easiest way a mom can give her baby a healthy head start.