The placenta is not generally a topic of discussion during the course of a pregnancy, unless it is not doing its job properly or is not in the best position for safe birthing. If the placenta is functioning as it should, little thought or consideration is given to it.
The placenta is a key player in the generation of new life. Each one is as individual and unique as the baby itself. Every baby needs a strong, healthy placenta in order to have the best chance at surviving the pregnancy and birth. Considering the important role the placenta plays, it is surprising that it remains a mystery to the vast majority of people. In a discussion with one first-time mother, she expressed her confusion at the fact that she did not feel the baby pulling on her belly when it moved around in her uterus; she thought the umbilical cord was connected to the back of her belly button. Most expectant parents don't know what a placenta even looks like. Some women don't realize that they actually need to birth the placenta the same way that they birth their baby.
Standard Handling of Placentas
With so much confusion and a lack of basic knowledge, in the US the placenta is treated indifferently or even fearfully. When a placenta is born in a hospital, the obstetrician will examine it to make sure that none of it has been retained. Sometimes a mother is injured when the obstetrician tries to rush the natural birthing process by pulling on the umbilical cord, which can cause the placenta to tear from the womb before it is ready. This can cause unnecessary trauma to the mother and has not been shown to have any benefit whatsoever.
Hospitals treat placentas as medical waste or biohazard material. The newborn placenta is placed in a biohazard bag for storage. Some hospitals keep the placenta for a period of time in case the need arises to send it to pathology for further analysis. Once the hospital is done with the placenta, it is put on a truck with all the other placentas and medical waste accumulated at the hospital that week for "proper disposal." If it is sent to the pathology department, it will be analyzed using chemical treatment and dissection.
In other hospitals, placentas are incinerated onsite. One might think that each placenta is incinerated individually, but the truth is very different. According to a charge nurse at a major hospital, all of the placentas are tossed into a large bin together. The contents of this bin are then dumped into the incinerator about once a week or "when it starts to leak or smell."
Even in the most beautiful of homebirth settings, the placenta often doesn't enjoy a much better fate. Though it is usually born at its own pace, it often isn't cared for afterward. After the midwife thoroughly examines it, the mother is sometimes asked if she'd like to keep it. If she hasn't considered the question before that moment, she won't have made prior arrangements. The placenta is then discarded, along with the other waste products from the birth.
Honoring the Placenta
In some situations the placenta is given proper consideration and reverence. One ritual that allows the baby and the placenta to separate naturally, without cutting the umbilical cord, is called "Lotus Birth." Because the baby and placenta have been joined together since conception, they are believed to share a special connection and bond. Lotus Birth honors this bond by allowing it to come to its natural conclusion. Lotus Birth enables a more gentle transition from womb to world for the baby.
Many cultures also honor the placenta via ceremonial burial rituals involving trees. The fetal side of the placenta forms an amazing image of the Tree of Life — an ancient symbol that appears in numerous religions and belief systems around the world. Many people of the world honor this sacred connection to new life by burying the placenta under a sacred tree. As the tree grows, it represents the abundance of life brought forth by the placenta in the form of the child.
Use of Placenta for Postpartum Recovery
There is also a growing trend of using the placenta to facilitate the woman's postpartum recovery through ingestion of the placenta, known as placentophagy. The placenta is incredibly nutritious and contains many of the vitamins, minerals and hormones that a mother's body needs to adequately recover from the pregnancy and birth. Women who take part in this practice feel that they have a faster recovery from the pregnancy and birth, have more energy and increased milk production, and often do not experience any postnatal mood instability such as the "baby blues," or postpartum depression.
If a woman wants to use the placenta for her postpartum recovery, special consideration must be given to its care after the birth. From the time it's born the placenta must be handled as though it were food, because that is what it will soon become. Just as you would not leave a steak out on the counter for several hours, the placenta should not be left sitting out. It should go straight into a food-grade container — not on the floor or on chux pads or towels. If the mother doesn't have a special bowl set aside to receive it, it can be double-bagged in gallon-sized ziplock bags — anything that can be sealed to protect the placenta from the air. It should be refrigerated as soon as possible for maximum freshness. The preparation of the placenta, in whatever form the mother will be consuming it, should begin within the first 24 hours after birth.
Some mothers choose a Lotus Birth. If a mother chooses this option, then the placenta will not be suitable for encapsulation or ingestion afterward. A nice compromise would be to allow the placenta to remain attached to the baby for a period of time — up to four hours — but severed from the umbilical cord and refrigerated after that point. Delaying the separation allows a gentle transition to the world for the baby and still allows the mother to make further use of the placenta.
The placenta can be consumed in a variety of ways, ranging from raw to incorporating it into the family's favorite lasagna recipe. Placenta encapsulation — whereby the placenta is completely dried, ground and placed into empty capsules — offers a number of advantages over other modes of ingestion. The main one is that the dehydration process preserves the placenta, allowing the mother to benefit from it for weeks instead of just the first few days postpartum. The capsules can also be frozen, extending their use from weeks and months to years. Beyond the postpartum period, the capsules are beneficial for any stressful transition. Having to leave the baby to go back to work, a job loss in the family, or a move can cause stress that can be helped with placenta capsules. Since the capsules also help with fatigue and milk production, they can be taken any time the mother feels worn down or needs to increase her milk supply.
Additionally, acupuncturists and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) use placenta to help balance a woman's hormones during menopause, so imagine the benefit of having access to her own natural hormones in levels that are already perfectly suited to her system.
Finally, capsules are much more palatable than raw placenta to the majority of women, making the use of placenta for postpartum recovery an option for women who may never have considered it otherwise. Placenta encapsulation and ingestion can open the doors of possibilities for more women and can be a key factor in helping eliminate the epidemic of the "baby blues" that we have come to accept in our Western society.
Placentas are amazing organs. They foster life in the womb from the time they are formed, but their role and influence does not cease at birth. Instead, they are perfectly created to nourish the mother and help her recover more quickly from the birth and pregnancy itself. By allowing her system to gradually balance itself, placenta capsules ease the transition to motherhood for many women.
If a woman is at her optimum in health and well-being, then she is unquestionably able to mother her baby and nurture her family at a higher level. No mother can perform at her peak when her system is depleted and she is exhausted. The placenta, grown in her womb and symbiotically integrated into her system, can replenish and revitalize her, giving her the energy and resources she needs for the most important endurance challenge of her lifetime: motherhood.
This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in Midwifery Today, Copyright © 2009 Midwifery Today, Inc.
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