What does a placenta do all day?
The placenta is an incredible organ that helps an unborn baby to grow and thrive. It performs the functions of the digestive system, immune system, kidneys, liver, skin and lungs while the baby is inside the womb of its mother. It allows the baby to extract all the nourishment it needs from the mothers blood and then sends any waste back to the mother to be excreted through her breath and urine. Dr Sarah Buckley (2005) puts it simply by saying ‘not only is the mother breathing and eating for the baby, but she is peeing for him too!’ The baby cannot regulate it’s own temperature and so it sends its excess heat to the mothers circulatory system to help cool down (this explains why pregnant women are that bit warmer!).
All of these amazing functions are performed continuously by the placenta while the baby grows inside its mother. The placenta also functions for some minutes after birth and by delaying the cutting of the cord, it helps the baby transition to breathing on it’s own and receive it’s full blood volume (including iron and stem cells). Delayed cord clamping not only allows the transfusion of blood to the baby, it also makes it easier and safer for the mother to birth (due to it’s reduced size). This helps the uterus to contract effectively and can help reduce the risk of postpartum hemorrhage. It’s a win-win to leave the placenta attached to the baby until it is birthed.
It’s no wonder that the placenta is revered in so many cultures around the world!
The treatment of the placenta after birth varies between people and countries. In many western cultures, the placenta is viewed as ‘medical waste’ and disposed of at birth. However, many cultures (throughout history and even today) place much significance on honouring the placenta by burying it. In New Zealand, the Maori traditionally bury the placenta on tribal land which helps the child to establish a personal and spiritual connection to the land. The Navajo will bury the placenta to ensure the child will always return home. Cambodians believe that a child will stay safe as long as they stay near to where their placenta was buried (Buckley 2012). The people of the Pacific Islands bury the placenta in the garden to ensure that the child will grow into a good gardener (Enning 2011). In Indonesia, a family may bury a paintbrush with the placenta (to bring artistic talent), or a pen to encourage the child to be a writer, or a pinch of rice to bring prosperity to the child’s life (Lim 2010). In Bali, the placenta is believed to be the physical body of the child’s guardian angel and is therefore treated with utmost respect.
One of my friends, Helene, decided to bury a small part of her placenta to help her son feel connected to the earth and ensure he always feels grounded and able to find his way in the world. She loved that this was a tradition in many cultures and felt a strong need to honour the placenta this way. I’ve had other clients also choose to keep a small part of their placenta for burial (they do this along side the choice to encapsulate the remainder for postpartum health).
I really like that burial of placenta can accompany placenta encapsulation. This important honouring and ceremonial aspect fits well with my belief system especially since women can still experience the benefits of encapsulation if they wish. I currently offer this as part of my service. If women would like to bury some of their placenta, a piece is cut off and refrigerated or frozen so that it can be buried according to their beliefs. I have also been honoured to be involved in ceremonies where the full placenta has been buried under a significant tree. It brings such a richness to the child and families life whilst closing the birthing journey in a beautiful way.
There are numerous other placenta traditions. For instance, in Turkey, if parents want their child to be well educated, they may throw the umbilical cord over a school yard wall (Buckley 2012). Australian natives may make necklaces from the umbilical cord for the children to wear to protect them from diseases (Enning 2011). In Yemen, the placenta is left on the rooftops for birds to eat. This is believed to help the love between the new parents to grow (Enning 2011).
Some women choose to make a print from their placenta. They do this by patting any excess blood off the placenta and then placing it onto paper to make a print of the tree-of-life. This is an artistic and creative way to honour the placenta and have a keepsake of its beauty.
Lotus birth is a new ritual for humans. This is the practice of leaving the placenta attached to the baby until the umbilical cord dries and separates naturally around 3-10 days after birth (Buckley 2010). It is believed that this can allow a more gentle transition for the baby. Some mothers report their baby is more calm and at ease as a result from having a lotus birth. To help preserve the placenta and reduce odour, it can be salted and dried rosemary or other herbs are added (Lim 2010). It is then wrapped in a nappy and changed daily. Waiting for the cord to detach on it’s own means those first few days are ‘slower’. The baby isn’t passed from one relative to another (because the placenta is still attached and this can make some people squeamish). It ensures people are extra gentle when handling the baby and a greater awareness is needed because the placenta is still attached. One mother, Rebecca Bashara, explained that it was easier to keep her baby swaddled rather than try and dress him while the placenta was still attached. It took three days of extra mindfulness but she felt it was worth it for the calm and peaceful transition for her baby (Lim 2010).
I provide placenta services to women in Northern New South Wales, Australia. Many of my clients choose to encapsulate their placenta. The practice of lotus birth is not really compatible with placenta consumption. In order to safely consume the placenta, it needs to be refrigerated soon after birth. Other traditions, such as delayed cord clamping and partial placenta burial can still be practiced alongside placenta encapsulation. Clients wishing to partake in several placenta traditions usually choose partial burial, placenta encapsulation and ceremonial use of the dried cord.
According to the 1916 Lancet, there are reports as far back as 1556 of people consuming their placenta. The belief was that it helped with production of milk. Modern accounts of placentaphagy claim similar benefits. In 1935, there were also reports of Italian women eating their placenta to aid lactation and to prevent after pains (Ploss).
In the 19th century, pharmacies in China, South America and Eastern Europe produced placenta remedies. Up until the end of the 19th century, it was quite common for European pharmacies to sell placenta powder. Still today in China, women make money by selling their placenta to pharmacies (Enning, 2011).
Enning (2011) states that according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the placenta is considered a powerful medicine that is full of vital force. Raven Lang, a TCM midwife recommends women consume their placenta to aid in recovery from birth and prevent postpartum depression.
These are just a glimpse of some of the many and varied beliefs and customs surrounding the placenta. It is an incredible organ that your body has made. It’s nice to think about what you might like to do to honour this organ that has sustained and grown your baby for 9 months. If you’d like to experience the benefits of placenta encapsulation, please get in touch.
Kirrah Holborn provides pregnancy and postpartum support in the Northern Rivers. She runs monthly holistic antenatal classes, gives nurturing pregnancy massages and provides safe and reliable placenta services.
Buckley, Dr Sarah (2005), “The Amazing Placenta” sourced from mothering.com on 29th July 2015
Buckley, Dr Sarah (2010), “Lotus Birth – A Ritual for Our Times” cited in “Placenta, the Forgotten Chakra”, Half Angel Press, Bali, Indonesia.
Buckley, Dr Sarah (2012), “Birth Preparation: Placenta Rituals and Folklore” sourced from mothering.com on 2nd June 2012.
Crawfurd, Dr Raymond (1916), “Legends and lore of the genesis of the healing art” published in The Lancet on December 30th 1916.
Enning, Cornelia (2011), “Placenta: The gift of life”, Motherbaby press, Oregon.
Lim, Robin (2010), “Placenta, The Forgotten Chakra”, Half Angel Press, Bali, Indonesia.
Ploss, H. Bartels, M.; and Bartels, P. (1935) “Woman: An historical, gynaecological and anthropological compendium. Heinemann, Londo