In a world where women deliver their babies under the influence of drugs, flat on their backs and being either screamed at or sliced into, most women never see the beautiful, life giving organ that allowed their baby to survive nine months. Modern, detached women may view the placenta with disgust and revulsion, but it is a highly evolved, incredible organ that carries both function, spirit and yes, nutrition.
What is the placenta?
The placenta is an amazing organ unlike any other in the human body. It is a flat, circular organ that weighs approximately one pound or 1/6 the baby’s body weight at birth. The placenta has two sides, one for the baby and one for the mother. The baby’s side is smooth and the umbilical cord usually emerges directly from the center. The mothers side is attached to the wall of her uterus and after the placenta is delivered, it appears bumpy and knobby and should be intact with no missing pieces.
The placenta is formed from the same sperm and egg that eventually become the fetus so many cultures treat the placenta with respect, as they would a twin. The placenta is also unique to other human organs because not only is it the only temporary human organ but it is also the only one that is housed outside of the body.
What does the placenta do?
The placenta is a large, highly complex organ, capable of a multiplicity of synthetic, secretory, filtration, analytic, and transport functions. It serves as the interface of the maternal and fetal physiological systems. cogprints.org
The placenta does more than any other organ in the human body and it makes life possible for your baby. The placenta acts as lungs, kidney and digestive system for your baby. It takes over hormone production around 12 weeks gestation, which will trigger labor and delivery, generate relaxin to prepare your body for birth, and provides estrogen, progesterone and hCG just to name a few.
The most amazing part of the placenta is its ability to bring maternal and fetal blood right next to each other without mixing. The maternal blood enters the placenta loaded with nutrients for her baby, leaves the nutrients behind and takes away her baby’s waste products. Conversely, the baby’s blood enters the placenta with waste products and returns from the placenta with maternal nutrients.
In addition, the placenta provides valuable stem cells to the fetus, protects the fetus from infections and harmful substances, provides energy for the baby by synthesizing glycogen, cholesterol and fatty acids and also provides passive immunity to the newborn through the transfer of maternal antibodies. The placenta even secretes hormones that “cloak” it from the mother’s immune system to prevent attacks.
Mystical and Cultural Significance of the Placenta
There are a variety of rituals surrounding the placenta that vary by culture. Many cultures revere the placenta for its role in their babies life. Certain cultures consider it the baby’s older sibling, best friend or deceased twin. Burying the placenta is a common practice either to honor the placenta, to nurture a tree that is planted a year later or to have a funeral ceremony for the “relative” of the baby.
As natural childbirth takes hold in western civilizations, more women are choosing to honor their placentas with various activities rather than letting a medical provider either sell it or burn it. Many women freeze their placentas for either a future ceremony, future meal or to be dried and ground at a later date. Marci Marcari discusses the freezing of placentas in her book She Births, and refers to those who freeze their placentas as member of the frozen placenta society (FPS).
Other women are finding lotus birth to be the most natural, gentle way to “cut the cord”. In a lotus birth the cord is not touched at all and usually falls off on its own in a few days. The placenta is either kept moist in a dish next to the baby or kept salted in a little pouch. Both methods are designed to keep odors at bay. The undisputed best part of a lotus birth is that the baby gets to keep all the blood and stem cells that belong in its body but there are other benefits as well such as allowing the mother and baby to stay close, lay low and enjoy their babymoon.
One other tradition that is taking hold even if the cord is cut is placenta printing, a sweet practice in which the placenta and umbilical cord is placed against a piece of paper and a print resembling a tree is left either using paint or the remaining blood and amniotic fluid.
Eating your placenta
Eating the placenta is also known as Placentophagia. Many animals, including herbivores, routinely chew through the umbilical cord and proceed to eat the placenta after their babies are born. Instinct driven creatures, it has been said, do not make mistakes. Human beings ignore their instincts, for better or for worse, and are driven by cultural and social forces, dogma and stigma. Due to these factors, the practice of eating your own placenta is relatively rare among humans, but still practiced among a small number of people around the globe, for both nutritional and ritualistic purposes.
The human placenta is so nutrient rich that you must plant an adjacent tree a full year after you bury the placenta or the tree will die. The placenta is loaded with nutrition that can replenish what a new mother lost due to pregnancy and childbirth. Placentophagia is believed to prevent postpartum depression, postpartum hemorrhage, help shrink the uterus and helps to relieve other pregnancy related complications.
The placenta is the only meat that a person can eat without killing or maiming another living being which may appeal to vegetarians. The placenta can be eaten raw, usually by blending it with vegetable juices and spices or simply swallowing a small piece whole. If the nutrients are to be preserved, then it certainly makes sense to eat it raw and fresh the way the animals do. While this sounds great in theory, most people cannot stomach raw, red organ meat of any animal so most people will not be able to enjoy the benefits of raw placenta either.
If you want to the benefits of eating placenta in a form that mimics meat cooked the way you are accustomed to eating it, then you will be able to find a number of recipes for cooked placenta, such as lasagna, pizza, roasts and other familiar foods. You can also simply fry it up with onions and peppers or cook it any way you would cook a steak.
Many families will create a ceremony out of the placenta meal and all will partake, similar to a burial ceremony or any other ritual that celebrates the role the placenta has had in their lives. Keep in mind that the rest of the family does not have depleted nutritional stores from pregnancy and childbirth so they do not need the placenta nearly as much as you will.
You may find it strange that some people eat their own placentas but there is a modern placenta practice that is so barbaric, cruel and wrong that it will make eating placenta seem as benign as eating birthday cake.
In a practice affectionately known as “active management of the third stage of labor”, unscrupulous doctors and midwives routinely amputate the placenta while it is still functioning in a move reminiscent of the urban legends involving kidneys and bathtubs. Like the kidney thieves, many hospitals profit from the sale of the placentas for research and cosmetic purposes, but the doctors and midwives simply do it because they are in a rush and they either do not know any better or they simply do not care.
Your birth attendant may yammer on about preventing postpartum hemorrhage, but it does not take a rocket scientist (although obstetricians can’t figure it out) that amputating one end of a live organ and then literally ripping it from the uterine wall is more likely to cause hemorrhage. These people are not only idiots, they are routinely performing one of the greatest human rights violations in modern medicine.
“The results of routinely clamping the cord after the placenta has delivered should soon persuade the birth attendant of the value of this practice – five-minute Apgar scores are routinely 10, even when one-minute Apgar scores are below 4.” Birthbraininjury.org
If someone were to drain 1/3 of your blood or harvest one of your organs without your permission, could they go to jail? Of course they would. Even if you somehow survived, no one is allowed to take what is rightfully yours, in your body without your permission. If you test the DNA of placental blood, does it belong to the midwife? the OB? the mother? No, no and no. It belongs to your baby. It is simply not the birth attendant’s choice to rob a baby of it’s own blood. As long as the umbilical cord is pulsing, the placenta is functioning and infusing the newborn with blood, oxygen, stem cells and immunity.
While removing that percentage of blood from your body would kill you, birth attendants believe it is OK to save themselves 15 lousy minutes of time with no concern whatsoever for long term injury to the baby because it does not kill them and long term effects of oxygen deprivation may not appear for years and naturally can no longer be proven. How convenient.
Not only does this oxygen rich blood belong to the baby, but this final blood transfusion serves a very important purpose in the period immediately following delivery. The placenta and umbilical cord provide oxygen to the baby prior to the baby’s first breath. Even if a baby takes its first breath immediately, it will take a few minutes for the oxygen from breathing to reach the lungs and be dispersed through the baby’s body, most importantly to the brain. Placental oxygenation is the bridge that keeps your baby’s brain and cells fully oxygenated until pulmonary oxygenation takes over. Immediate cord clamping is a heinous practice that literally deprives every single newborn baby of oxygen in that critical time period.
In addition, delayed cord clamping helps prevent postpartum hemorrhage because it allows the placenta to detach naturally when its job is over. When the cord is left open, the placenta is allowed to give up its blood which then allows it to spontaneous detach from the uterine wall, often with the aid of natural oxytocin released through breastfeeding. No ripping, tugging, pulling or manual traction is necessary. The problem is that 99% of birth attendants are not willing to wait.
Keep in mind that there are only two legitimate, scientifically based reasons for immediate cord clamping and they are a torn cord and placenta previa. A cesarean, premature delivery or severely compromised infant are never grounds for immediate cord clamping, in fact these compromised newborns are in even greater need of the life giving, oxygenated, nutrient filled blood that the placenta contains.
Unfortunately you have very few choices if you want your baby to retain life giving blood, oxygen, stem cells and immunity that the placenta carries for that final blood transfusion. Having an unassisted childbirth is the best way to 100% guarantee that no malicious cord clamping is performed on your newborn. Your second choice is a lay midwife who respects your wishes and the role of the placenta and will allow you to either have a lotus birth or wait until the placenta is delivered although they have also been known to ignore the parents request to leave the cord alone. Some midwives have to be physically blocked or placed in another room to keep them away from the cord. Do yourself a favor and get references from women who used the midwife and the cord remained intact.
If you are going to deliver in the hospital, whether it is with a certified nurse midwife or a doctor, your odds of allowing your baby to keep its blood and oxygen fall sharply. Even with written instructions via a birth plan and verbal instructions, these people are bound and determined to clamp that cord as fast as possible. If you have simply given them a written birth plan with your wishes in addition to your verbal instructions, you can pretty much count on them clamping and cutting the cord anyway.
Here is your number one takeaway “get your birthplan signed by all parties, including an attorney.”
No matter what your verbal or written instructions say, be prepared to physically stop birth attendants from both injecting you with pitocin (they can be very sneaky) and from cutting the cord (they will be very fast). It is your job to protect your baby, it is your OB’s job to get to his tee time. You very well may need to get your partner or doula to physically stop them or you have have to kick them or fight them off (don’t forget to use lawsuit threats). Get it on film if they cut the cord anyway and sue their asses off. Do not let them talk you out of it or blabber on with nonsense that has no scientific basis such as jaundice or anything else. It is all bogus and they either do not know what they are talking about or they simply care more about 20 minutes of their time than your baby’s long term health and well being.
In either event, you need to take matters into your own hands. You are a paying customer but that does not matter. They will do whatever they want to you unless you take steps to legally enforce your wishes. The best way to ensure that no one in a hospital touches the cord before the placenta is delivered is to get it in writing and signed prior to the birth. You will most likely have to get an attorney involved and have every relevant party sign the document well in advance of the birth. Threaten in advance to sue if they ignore your wishes and clamp the cord before the placenta is delivered. You can insist on keeping the cord intact for all deliveries, including cesarean births. They will hate it because they might have dinner reservations, but that isn’t your problem now is it?
Perhaps the best way to avoid any cord issues with birth providers is to insist on a lotus birth. Get it in writing, in advance with a legal document. Then you will also avoid any issues you may have with keeping your own placenta for freezing, burying, printing or even eating. Apparently hospitals tend to think of your placenta as their property as soon as it leaves your body and some women have had to take legal action after the fact in order to keep what is rightfully theirs. If you do not want a lotus birth, simply cut the cord yourself after all hospital staff leave the room or after you leave the hospital. Extreme? Absolutely. Do they leave us a choice? Unfortunately, no they don’t.
The placenta is more than a miraculous organ that sustained life for nine months, it is a bridge from the born to the unborn. Some call it disposable but that is a great insult to the friend and organ that made life possible for your little one.
Additional resources and reading:
Personal story of placetophagy and postpartum health
How to End the Birth Litigation Crisis
Unknown to mothers, placentas collected & sold
Don’t cut the cord!
Civil Action to Protect Babies Umbilical Cord
Umbilical Cord Issues/Delayed Cord Clamping
Criminal Teaching on immediate cord clamping on an infant’s pulsating lifeline, the umbilical cord
Image source: http://flickr.com/photos/alfon18/2423985845/