The placenta is an organ that resembles the tree of life. It is conceived at the moment of genesis to nourish and maintain the fetus. It unites the mother and her in utero baby in a profound way throughout the pregnancy, while maintaining their integrity as distinct beings. The placenta connects to the mother through blood vessels it sends into her uterine wall, and it connects to the baby through the umbilical cord. As the baby is developing, the placenta selects and transports the nutrients the baby needs for the formation of its tissues from the mother’s blood and sends them into the blood of the fetus, and it also provides oxygen to the baby throughout the pregancy. It is also thought to act as a barrier against some harmful bacteria and foreign molecules, and it removes waste products from the baby’s blood. Some say the placenta also exchanges emotions between the mother and child.
The body typically releases the placenta from the uterine wall within an hour after the baby is born. It is thought that in order to provide the most nutrients and life force to the new baby, it is best to wait to cut the umbilical cord that connects the baby to the placenta until after the cord stops pulsing. Some think it is better to wait for at least several hours after the birth. And some do not sever the umbilical cord at all, but rather wait for it to detach naturally, which can take several days. The practice of leaving the baby attached to the placenta is known as a lotus birth.
In many cultural traditions, the placenta is considered something sacred. It is often buried ceremonially near the family’s home. And in this country, there seems to be a growing recognition of the importance of the placenta and more consideration about what should be done with it after the birth of the baby. While hospitals typically dispose of placentas, more and more parents are asking the hospital to let them keep their placentas, and doulas are helping to ensure that the placentas are given back to the families after the baby is born. In home births, usually the midwife and the family will discuss in advance of the birth what should be done with the placenta.
One emerging trend in this country, which seems to have been practiced in some traditional cultures as well, is for the new mother to eat the placenta. It is thought to strengthen mother and infant bonding, reduce the chances of postpartum hemorrhage, replenish the mother’s nutrients, provide immunological advantages, prevent or reduce postpartum depression, support lactation, and reduce postpartum pain. Placentas can also be preserved and eaten after the postpartum period. They are thought to provide support during times of anxiety and change, or during times of hormonal fluctuation, such as when the mother goes through menopause. The placenta can even be given to the child when she becomes an adolescent and begins menstruating.
There are several ways placentas can be eaten. They can be prepared as raw cubes, which can be eaten immediately or frozen, or made into a broth. Some doulas will make the mother a smoothie with placenta in it to drink immediately after she gives birth. They can also be dried and encapsulated, sometimes with herbs added. They can also be made into a tincture, which involves steeping them in alcohol for four to six weeks. Some people who prepare placentas to be eaten or taken as medicine will make an art print of the placenta first, for the family to have as a keepsake.
When my baby was born, I hired a woman recommended by my midwife to prepare the placenta to be eaten. We kept the placenta in a bowl in the refrigerator until she came by to pick it up. In just a short time, she returned with cubes, broth, capsules, and a tincture, which needed to steep for four to six weeks before it could be taken. She also had prepared several art prints of the placenta and spelled out the world “love” with the umbilical cord. I took the capsules several times a day during the immediate postpartum period, and when they were finished enough time had passed that I could take the tincture. I’ve taken the tincture regularly since then, and I already have some left nine months postpartum. I found that when I was taking the placenta capsules after the baby was born, I felt strong and energized, and I feel that the tincture has continued to provide me with an important source of physical and emotional nourishment during the postpartum period.
I’ve been asked, since I’m a vegan, whether it’s appropriate for me to eat placenta. I consider it to be a vegan food since it was not procured by killing an animal, and was not taken from an animal without its consent. Rather, it was jointly created by me and my baby and released from my body naturally after the baby’s birth. It could actually be said that placenta is the only vegan meat. And I was even able to get the placenta prepared in vegan capsules.
I’d definitely recommend that one of the things that pregnant women consider before giving birth is what they want to do with their placentas. This includes how long to keep the placenta attached to the baby, or whether to let it detach naturally, as well as what to do with it after the baby is born. An excellent resource is the book Placenta: the Forgotten Chakra by Robin Lim. Midwives and doulas can also usually provide guidance about how to ensure that your family is able to keep the placenta attached as long as you consider appropriate, and how to keep the it after it is detached from the umbilical cord. They can also provide information about the options about what can be done with the placenta after birth.
My view is the placenta is something truly sacred, almost magical. I think the bond the umbilical cord provides between the mother and child is something that should be treated with care and reverence, rather than severed perfunctorily, and that the organ itself, which sustained the life of the child during the pregnancy, regardless of what the family ultimately decides to do with it, should also be treated with reverence.
Lim, Robin. Placenta: The Forgotten Chakra. Bali:Half Angel Press, 2010.
Curtis, Glade and Schuler, Judith. Your Pregnancy After 35. Cambridge: DeCapo Press, 2001.