Getting to know the amazing placenta.
The ultimate multitasker
The placenta is a pancake-shaped organ that grows alongside your developing baby from the moment of conception. Connected by the umbilical cord, this complex piece of biological equipment is filled with small blood vessels that act as a trading route between the fetal and maternal blood supply, carrying essential nutrients, oxygen, hormones and gases to the fetus and transferring out waste products like carbon dioxide. While the baby’s vital organs are still in development, the placenta serves as a fetal life support system, functioning as the lungs, kidneys, liver, digestive and immune systems. Additionally, this bodily wonder also works hard to provide hormones, such as hCG, estrogen and progesterone, which are needed to sustain a healthy pregnancy.
A healthy mama means a healthy placenta, as Iris Beard of mommy blog thebeardediris.com well knows: “I remember our Bradley Method instructor placing a lot of emphasis on building the perfect placenta [via] food and lifestyle choices … She encouraged me to inspect my placenta thoroughly after the birth, looking for any calcifications that would indicate unhealthy pregnancy choices, as if the placenta was my healthy pregnancy report card. Maybe she was trying to scare me, like ‘Go ahead and eat all those Krispy Kremes. Your placenta won’t lie.’”
Hormone regulator, life support mechanism, pregnancy report card … for an organ, it boasts a pretty impressive resume. Still not convinced of the placenta’s prowess? Maybe this will do the trick: It is the only disposable organ out there. Which brings us to the next fun fact about our throwaway friend … You get to birth it.
Once the hard work of bringing baby through the birth canal is over, you’d best prepare yourself for a delivery encore. Mild contractions work to separate the placenta from the uterine wall, moving it into your birth canal where it can then be delivered. This part of your maternity ward marathon might feel anticlimatic, but take a moment to marvel at the placenta in all its humble glory. Though its looks are unimpressive, welcoming a new life into the world would have been impossible without it.
Typically, the placenta is inspected and slipped into a biohazardous waste bag to later be disposed of by the hospital, but recently more women are opting to take their placenta to go. Marie Lewis, head of Lark Doula Services in East Vancouver, British Columbia, saved her placenta after the birth of her daughter and encourages others to do the same: “I didn’t want something so sacred to go to medical waste or possibly even research for who knows what. I always encourage families to take their placenta home and at least keep it in their freezer. You never know when you may want to use it.”
Waste not, want not
Other cultures view the placenta as the child’s guardian, companion, even sibling, and show gratitude for the role that it played in the child’s life through various rituals. Cambodian families wrap it in a banana leaf and place it next to the newborn for three days before burial. Filipina mothers bury it with books to give their offspring intelligence. Samoan cultures burn or bury the placenta to ensure that the child will stay close to home as he walks through life.
Western culture has adopted its own methods for paying tribute. Parents who choose to keep their baby’s placenta may bury it and plant a tree over it, make prints of it to be kept as keepsakes, or take part in a practice known as placentophagia, the eating of the placenta. Though the idea isn’t exactly appetizing, placentophagia has been around for hundreds of years and is believed to have numerous health benefits for mothers. The nutrients and vitamins within the placenta help fight postpartum depression, speed the recovery process, increase milk production, replenish depleted iron, and return your system to a balanced state. Can’t stomach the idea of a placenta protein shake? You may prefer to have it encapsulated to enjoy all the benefits sans the “ew” factor. Lewis, who uses the traditional Chinese method for encapsulation (first dehydrating the placenta and then grinding it into a fine powder before packing it into gel caps), felt the benefits of vitamin P firsthand: “When I was feeling down, or my milk supply was low, or I just had zero energy, I would take one or two and the effects were amazing. Uplifting is a good word to describe it.”
If you’re not up to the placentophagia challenge, placenta donation may be a good option. SETA, the Southeast Tissue Alliance, uses the amniotic membrane to restore sight to surgical eye patients, and search and rescue dog training facilities can use placentas to train dogs to recover missing people. Regardless of what you choose to do, learning about the placenta —its purpose and uses—can only lead to a better-informed pregnancy and delivery. In fact, you may even develop a new appreciation for it like Beard did. “I started to view the placenta as a vital part of me and my pregnancy that I couldn’t bear to just discard like medical waste. ‘No placenta left behind!’”