Despite the fact that all human beings spent their first months in very close proximity to a placenta, chances are you haven’t given it much thought since.
It’s true that most people’s knowledge of the placenta includes only a few common facts – that it’s an organ that grows inside the uterus and that it provides oxygen and nutrition to your baby. Show them a photo, and they’ll probably be a bit grossed out – even more so when they hear about some weird cultural and religious practices surrounding placentas. (We’re sure you’ve read about some celebrities who’ve even eaten their placentas!).
Here’s some facts that are guaranteed to make you appreciate this amazing organ, as well as some understanding of placenta practices which you may not have heard of before.
The placenta as a miracle
Right after conception has taken place, when the fertilised egg divides into 2 cells, one of those is already destined to become the placenta, while the other will become the baby. The placenta is the very first of all your baby’s organs that will grow and develop.
Within a few days after conception, long before you even suspect you’re pregnant, the cells of the developing placenta start producing hormones. These help to prepare the uterus’s lining so that the fertilised egg can be implanted and start growing. It continues to manufacture hormones that maintain the pregnancy throughout.
The placenta provides the baby with oxygen and nutrients from mom’s blood stream, while removing carbon dioxide and other waste products from baby’s body.
It also protects baby from mom’s immune system, who would otherwise attack baby’s body as a foreign object. How it manages to do this is still a mystery!
Until about 20 weeks gestation, the placenta weighs more than the baby, as baby’s own organs are not yet capable of fulfilling their different functions. Eventually, the foetal heart will pump 500ml of blood per minute through the placenta.
Thank you for your service
While parents are generally over the moon with the birth of their new baby, the placenta (which made it all possible) is discarded. It’s sent away as medical waste, never to be thought of again!
However, many cultures hold the placenta in great esteem and have post-birth rituals to celebrate its role. Many of these rituals include ceremonial burial and sometimes planting a tree on the spot, or naming the placenta. The placenta is often seen as something that can bring good fortune to a household, or provide protection.
In some Native American cultures, the placenta is buried close to the home, signifying that the cord which bound you to your mother for 9 months now binds you to the land. It’s believed that you’ll have a deep root to the land and will have some place to come home to no matter where you go. This is a beautiful tradition.
Creating a keepsake
Some parents make a print of the placenta as a keepsake for their baby. This is done by putting the placenta face down on a piece of paper and letting it dry. These prints are a beautiful and artistic way of preserving something of the miracle of the placenta. It can be done without costing money, no matter where or when you give birth.
To make your own print, use a piece of absorbent paper (similar to the paper that you would use for water colour painting). Pat the placenta dry, and then press it down on the paper. You may want to make a few prints in order to choose the best. If it’s nicely done it can show the cord, and the intricate network of lobes and blood vessels. You can also use paint or ink, unless you are planning to do placental encapsulation.
Lotus birth is the practice of not cutting the cord after birth, but leaving the placenta attached to your baby until the cord dries out and the placenta detaches naturally from baby.
The placenta is rinsed regularly and wrapped in clean cloths. It is kept dry and odour free by using sea salt and herbs or essential oils. After detachment certain rituals like burying can be performed.
There is no scientific research that gives a clear answer on either the safety or the advantages of lotus birth.
Those advocating lotus birth believe their babies are much calmer with their placentas close to them, until they are ready to let go. They also believe there’s a reduced risk of infection of the cord, as it is not cut but left intact.
On the other hand, the cord can take 3-10 days to detach, during which time the placenta will start decaying. Regular rinsing and salting will help to prevent this to an extent, but theoretically, it poses the risk of infection to baby, and it may have a bad smell.
The practice of eating your placenta is called placentophagia. Those in favour of this practice argue that humans are one of the few mammals who don’t routinely eat their placentas. The placenta is rich in nutrition and hormones, and supporters believe that it can boost breast milk production, reduce postnatal depression, improve bonding and help to stop bleeding after birth.
There are some who choose to eat a placenta as is, for example in a smoothie. The more common and popular option is called placental encapsulation. This is a practice where a placenta is dried and grounded, and then put into capsules for mom to drink in the weeks after the birth.
From a medical viewpoint, there’s currently not enough evidence on whether ingesting the placenta in this manner is effective or not. It’s unlikely to cause harm.
One concern, however, is that the practice isn’t regulated at all, and there aren’t set protocols and regulations to ensure hygiene, or even that each mom receives her own placenta! If you do choose to do this, it’s important to discuss this with the person you’ve elected to assist you, and to make sure that they do it in a safe and hygienic matter.
Christine Klynhans is a nursing sister and South African Certified Lactation Consultant (SACLC). She currently works at Parentwood Baby and Family Wellness Centre in Pretoria as a well-baby clinic sister and antenatal teacher. She also has a breastfeeding practice and a Breast Pump Demo Centre. She is passionate about supporting parents on the journey of pregnancy, breastfeeding and the early childhood years. Learn more about Christine Klynhans.