Different Beliefs About the Placenta

Pregnant woman making heart shape on her bump
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While we all marvel at the miracle of fetal development and the wonders of birth, we very often fail to look at the miraculous organ the placenta.

This organ grows from the time of conception to eventually take over the production of hormones needed to sustain the pregnancy at around 12 weeks gestation (from your last menstrual period). It supplies your growing baby with a means of obtaining nutrients for development as well as a method of waste disposal. This is the only disposable organ ever made.

Other cultures have come to see the placenta in a completely different light. There are even ceremonies and beliefs held about the placenta that are completely foreign to us.

For example, in some cultures, it is commonplace to leave the baby attached to the placenta, rather than clamp the cord, until the cord dries up and falls off. This is called a Lotus birth and is not practiced often in the United States. The theories behind this are that it helps slow the new family down and offers them more seclusion in the first few days when a getting to know you period is in order.

One thing you see here is that there are many families who will hold ceremonies with the placenta after birth. Some families will take the placentas and bury them in the ground to celebrate the new life given to them. This dedication of the placenta back to the earth or in honor of the child is becoming more frequent. A year later a tree or flower is then planted in the same spot to allow the placenta to nourish its growth. The reason that you would wait this year is that a placenta is so nutrient rich that it would kill anything planted before that period.

Placenta Art

What about placenta art? Yes, you can make art out of it. Generally, mothers talk about placenta prints. After the birth, you take a piece of paper and lay the placenta on it. If it is fresh you can let the blood and amniotic fluid leave the print or others choose to use paints to add color. Now, what? Well, hang your framed art or store it for safe keeping.

Eating the Placenta

Then comes the practice of placentophagia, eating the placenta, is also practiced in some parts of the world. There are even meal-like recipes for cooking placentas, including placenta stew, placenta lasagna, power drinks with blended placenta and others. Some mothers have been reported to eat placenta raw.

There are many reasons listed for eating the placenta, including it helping stem postpartum depression and it supposedly helps to contract the uterus after the birth, build iron stores (which doesn't seem to hold true in initial studies), and perhaps influence the rates of postpartum depression. We know that many animals eat their own placenta, including as a means to hide the scent from predators.

In our modern world, this may seem barbaric and some have even said that this could spread HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis. While this is very true if people other than the mother consume the placenta, normally it is only the mother partaking of the placenta. Currently, there is research being done on consuming your placenta, either by dehydration and pill form, or eating it in another form. Everything out there right now is based on anecdotal or very old data that has not yet been corroborated.

In Chinese Medicine, the placenta is known as a great life force and is highly respected in terms of its medicinal value. However, in this field it is not cooked, but rather usually dried. To dry a placenta you would simply dehydrate it in the oven, then using a mortar and pestle, grind it up. From there you can mix it with food or ingest it within capsules.

No matter what you choose to do with your placenta, remember to value the life it has helped you nurture and bring forth. It is, after all, the Tree of Life.

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  • Gryder LK, Young SM, Zava D, Norris W, Cross CL, Benyshek DC. Effects of Human Maternal Placentophagy on Maternal Postpartum Iron Status: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study. J Midwifery Women's Health. 2016 Nov 3. doi: 10.1111/jmwh.12549. [Epub ahead of print]

  • Joseph R, Giovinazzo M, Brown M. A Literature Review on the Practice of Placentophagia. Nurs Womens Health. 2016 Oct - Nov;20(5):476-483. doi: 10.1016/j.nwh.2016.08.005.

  • Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. Gabbe, S, Niebyl, J, Simpson, JL. Sixth Edition.

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.