The placenta is an amazing organ that occurs during pregnancy. Let’s take a look at what it is, what it does, problems that can occur with the placenta during pregnancy, what happens to it after a baby is born, and why some people are now eating their placentas!
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What is the placenta
What does the placenta do?
When does it develop?
Placenta position: anterior vs. posterior
What happens to it after baby is born?
Things to do with it afterward (some people eat it!)
Please note that I am not a doctor. This article is compiled through my own research and experiences. See the end of the article for sources used. Please consult your doctor with any problems and concerns during pregnancy.
What is the placenta?
The placenta is a unique organ. It’s temporary, it develops only during pregnancy. Each pregnancy results in the development of a new placenta.
The placenta is a larger circular organ that will eventually grow to be about the size of a dinner plate. It grows inside of a woman’s uterus during each pregnancy and is connected to the baby through the umbilical cord.
If you’re interested in learning more details about how the placenta works and it’s structure you can check out this video I found on YouTube.
A healthy placenta is vital to a healthy pregnancy.
What does it do?
Simply put the placenta “provides oxygen and nutrients to your growing baby and removes waste products from your baby’s blood” throughout the pregnancy (MayoClinic). Your baby cannot grow, thrive, or live for very long without a well functioning placenta.
When does it develop?
The placenta begins developing as soon as the fertilized egg implants into the uterus of the mother. Around week 13 the placenta goes through spiral artery remodeling where “Spiral arteries in the uterine wall are remodeled to supply blood to the fetus during pregnancy” (National Institute of Health).
It’s crucial that this process occurs correctly or the placenta will not function properly. Improper development of the placenta can lead to issues such as pre-eclampsia.
Anterior vs. posterior
When you hear women talk about their placenta you’ll often hear them talking about having an anterior or posterior placenta. A posterior placenta attaches more towards the back of the uterus while an anterior placenta attaches more towards the front of the uterus.
Those that have an anterior placenta may not begin to feel the flutters of their baby moving until a bit later in pregnancy. This was the case with both of my pregnancies. The kicks were never as strong as some other women I spoke with either.
It can be a bit nerve-wracking to have an anterior placenta early on when other women start feeling kicks and you do not but you can still have a perfectly normal pregnancy. Some studies do suggest an anterior placenta may be more likely to result in complications than a posterior placenta. (If you like to read medical studies I’ve linked to all my sources at the end of this article.)
The placenta is an essential part of a healthy pregnancy and there are various, though uncommon, issues that can occur.
Placenta Previa occurs in less than 1% of US births. It occurs when the placenta is low lying and can partially or completely cover the cervix. There are several issues with this.
If a woman has complete placenta previa a C-section is required as the placenta is essentially blocking the exit and the baby would not be able to enter the birth canal.
If you have only marginal previa there are still risks as when the cervix begins to widen it could cause placental abruption. If you have this your doctor will discuss the risks and whether a C-section is adviseable.
The good news is with a marginal previa there is a chance the placenta will move slightly as things continue to grow and shift and may move farther away from the cervix.
How will doctors diagnose placenta previa?
Thankfully, with modern technology it’s easy to tell if you have placenta previa. This is something that will be checked in an ultrasound and in repeat ultrasounds if needed.
Placental abruption occurs when the placenta separates from the uterus. This can result in bleeding, pain, and can result in premature labor, low birth weight, and in rare cases, death of the mother or baby. It occurs in 1 in 100 pregnancies (according to the Cleveland Clinic), usually in the third trimester.
If you have abnormal bleeding, pain, or contractions always contact your doctor so they can check for any issues.
Placenta accreta is a dangerous and potentially life-threatening (for the mother) condition that occurs in 0.2% of pregnancies (Brigham Health). Accreta occurs when the placenta grows through the wall of the uterus.
It comes in two types, placenta increta where the placenta becomes inbedded in the muscle wall of the uterus, and placenta percreta where the placenta grows through the wall of the uterus and in severe cases may invade other organs. The second is the more serious of the two.
Both conditions can cause excessive bleeding and other complications during and after delivery. It is sometimes spotted on ultrasounds during pregnancy. All of the placenta must be removed after birth and may result in the need for a hysterectomy depending on the severity.
There are certain risk factors that increase the chances of having placenta accreta:
- previous c-section or other uterine surgery
- placenta previa
- maternal age over 35
- previous childbirth (risks increase with each pregnancy)
Pre-eclampsia is high blood pressure that occurs in pregnant women who did not previously have high blood pressure. It generally occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy. While pre-eclampsia has various causes issues with the placenta are one such cause.
Blood vessels in the placenta of those with pre-eclampsia tend to be more narrow preventing blood from flowing as freely. As the pregnancy progresses and the baby requires more it makes sense that pre-eclampsia would develop in the second half of pregnancy.
Normally the placenta should be “birthed” within 60 minutes of the baby, within 30 minutes is normal. The doctor will look to ensure the placenta is intact. A retained placenta, when all or part of it fails to be expelled from the uterus can result in life-threatening bleeding or infection.
This can occur when part of the placenta fails to separate from the uterus, all of the placenta fails to separate, or when the cervix closes too early and the detached placenta becomes trapped inside.
Surgery may be necessary if medical staff cannot get the remaining placenta out via other means. A retained placenta occurs in 1-3% of pregnancies (International Journal of Women’s Health).
As you can see there are many complications that can happen with the placenta, but thankfully most of these issues are rare.
What happens to the placenta after the baby comes?
Delivering the placenta
Unfortunately, when your baby enters the world your job isn’t quite done, labor is not yet finished. After they cut the umbilical cord and hand you your baby you still have the third stage of labor.
In the third stage of labor you will deliver the placenta (if you have a vaginal birth). The placenta will detach itself and be birthed just like the baby was.
The doctor will check that the placenta is intact as it’s vital that all pieces be removed (see retained placenta above).
If you want to see your placenta, or save it for personal use (more on that below) be sure you include this in your birth plan and verbally let the doctor and nurses know. Otherwise, your placenta will be discarded as medical waste.
Things to do with your placenta
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More and more people are actually starting to keep their placenta after their baby is born for various reasons. If you want to keep yours for any reason be sure to include it on your birth plan and notify medical staff when you go to deliver your baby.
Why do some people eat it?
Recently a trend has developed for eating the placenta. This practice is called placentophagy. This is largely due to the belief that eating the placenta (usually in smoothies or dried and encapsulated in pill form) can help fight things like postpartum depression or improve breastmilk supply.
While many other mammals eat their placenta it has not previously been noted in humans until North America in the 1970s. (Until doing research for this article I too thought the idea of eating the placenta came from other earlier cultural traditions, but research has found no record of this throughout history.)
There is no medical research as of now to back up the practice of eating the placenta. Most reports of positive benefits are anecdotal and may simply be a placebo effect.
This practice could potentially be harmful as the placental is not sterile, may contain bacteria and/or diseases, and there are no guidelines for proper handling and preparation of the placenta.
The truth is that what is really needed is more research. Like many “female issues” there is little research into the matter and most of what can be found is inconclusive or shows no benefits to the practice.
But, if you want to give it a try placenta encapsulation is a service often offered by doulas.
Bury the placenta
While no evidence has been found to suggest that societies have historically eaten placentas after birth many do have certain beliefs or traditions surrounding the handling of them. One common belief is “burying the placenta in a specified location will ensure positive health outcomes for families and communities” (Placentophagy: Therapeutic Miracle or Myth?)
Another new fad for using the placenta after birth is using it in jewelry. This one actually sounds somewhat appealing to me if for no other reason then to see the looks on people’s faces when they ask about your piece of jewelry and you tell them it’s your placenta!
It doesn’t seem any stranger than owning breastmilk jewelry, which I have. It’s holding onto a piece of that special bond between you and your baby. Most of the placenta jewelry is made with dehydrated, encapsulated, placenta.
The last trend in after birth placenta uses is placenta art sometimes called a placenta print. Yes, you heard me correctly. People will actually use the placenta to make an imprint of sorts and turn it into works of art.
You can search #placentaart on Instagram and see some examples if you’re interested.
There you have it! Everything you need to know about the placenta that will take care of your baby for 9+ months. If you have questions I missed feel free to drop a comment below! Be sure to check out my Pregnancy Page for more information.
- Placenta: How it works, what’s normal, Mayo Clinic
- The epidemiology of placenta previa in the United States, 1979 through 1987
- Placental location and pregnancy outcome
- Placental Abruption, Cleveland Clinic
- Placenta Accreta, Brigham Health
- Placenta Accreta, Mayo Clinic
- Preeclampsia, Mayo Clinic
- Retained placenta after vaginal delivery: risk factors and management
- Placentophagy: Therapeutic Miracle or Myth?