12.16.2010

Afterbirth, After Birth, Part 2

Photo ©2013 Patti Ramos Photography
The placenta is an amazing vascular organ. The word placenta comes from the Latin for “cake”. It is the only organ that is grown to be temporary, and sheds itself after its primary use is finished. Placental development and circulation begins 3 weeks after implantation. There is both a fetal and a maternal component to the placenta, so it is actually a product both of conception and the mother’s body as well.

It is the first bond between mother and baby, the communicative highway to transmitting hormones, nutrients, and blood – in essence, this is the first way in which a mother cares for her baby and that a baby communicates it’s needs to his mother.

It is a fully functional organ at 12 weeks gestation and acts as the baby’s lungs, kidneys, liver, digestive and immune systems. The placenta attaches to the baby through the umbilical cord, which attaches to baby through the abdomen. The umbilical cord inserts into the placenta via the chorionic plate.

Fetal Side
On the fetal side of the placenta, vessels branch out over the surface and divide to form a network covered by a thin layer of cells. The result is the beautiful and sacred shape of the tree of life – scientifically known as villous tree structures. On the maternal side, these villous tree structures are grouped into lobules called cotyledons.

Maternal Side
The amazing placenta also transmits and produces hormones, sending messages advocating fetal demands to the mother’s body and helping to care for and grow the baby while also hiding it from the mother’s body so that the mother’s body doesn’t see baby or placenta as invaders.

The hormones that the placenta creates and releases include:
  • Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) - hCG is the first placental hormone. This hormone is only produced by a woman’s body when she is pregnant. hCG makes sure that the woman continues to produce progesterone and estrogen, two important hormones for keeping a baby in for 9 months. hCG also suppresses the mother’s immunological response that the baby and placenta are foreign objects and reject them.
  • Human Placental Lactogen (hPL). This hormone has growth-promoting properties. It promotes mammary gland growth in preparation for lactation in the mother. It also regulates maternal glucose, protein, fat levels so that this is always available to the fetus.
  • Estrogen. This ‘woman’s hormone’ contributes to the woman's mammary gland development in preparation for lactation and stimulates uterine growth to accommodate growing fetus.
  • Progesterone. This hormone is necessary to maintain endometrial lining of the uterus during pregnancy. This hormone prevents preterm labor by inhibiting contractions.
  • Two additional components of the placenta, Neurokinin B (containing phosphocholine molecules) and lymphocytic suppressor cells, help to cloak the placenta and baby from the woman’s immunological system.

It is dark maroon in color and, at full term, the placenta weighs 1/6 of the baby’s weight and covers 1/3 of the inside of the uterus. At the time of birth, as the baby is born out of the womb and the uterus has further to involute, it begins to slough off the placenta from the uterine wall, allowing the placenta to separate and be expelled by contractions. The placenta is usually birthed within 15-30 minutes, but can take up to 2 hours after child birth.

After birth, it can continue to help mom and baby through nourishment, emotional and physical healing, and ceremonial purposing. Cultures throughout time honored the placenta in their own rites and rituals, including consumption, burial, ceremonies, and blessings.

Cultural Customs

Western culture, by and large, regard the placenta as biohazardous waste, something to dispose of or let medical students play with, but it is so much more to other cultures around the world. Whereas our culture looks at it in disgust, other cultures revere it’s purpose and blessing on a babies life.

Among the Navajo Native Americans, it was customary to bury the placenta of a child within the Four Corners of the tribes boundaries. This essentially bound the child to his ancestors and his land. The Maoris of New Zeeland have a similar practice, burying the placenta of a tribe member on their tribe’s soil. In the Maori language, placenta and land share the same name: whenua.

Korean Placenta Burial Marker

Koreans, Cambodians, Malinese, and Balinese people are more cultures that routinely bury the placenta with reverence and symbolism. Cambodians are known to wrap the placenta in banana leaves and keep it with baby for 3 days before ritualistically burying it. In Mali, the placenta is rinsed, dried, and placed in a basket to be buried by the father of the child to ensure a happy and healthy child.

An example of placenta burial can be found with the Balinese people. In Bali, the placenta is considered the baby’s twin and thought to act as the baby’s guardian angel throughout life. As such, it requires special reverence because of its job. The placenta is cleaned and prepared by the father, and buried by the mother. The burial takes place in the yard of the families home, the right side of the main house for a boy and the left side of the main house for a girl. It is placed in a coconut shell, wrapped in white linen, and buried with talismans, songs, prayers, and blessings for a healthy and happy lifetime for the child.

Ari Ari - Balinese Placenta Burial Marker

Some cultures believe that the placenta has its own spirit. The Bolivian Aymara and Quecha people are two such cultures. As such, the placenta is given the burial rites of any other living being. It is washed and buried in a secret, shady place by the father of the child with secret rite. It is thought that, if the ritual is not done properly, the mother or baby can become sick because of it.

Just like the Balinese, many other cultures believe that the placenta is the twin, sibling, or companion of the baby. This is understandable as the placenta and cord is the first physical interaction a baby has and it provides the first emotional and physical contact to the mother that baby has. The Ibo of Nigeria and Ghana view the placenta as the dead twin of the child and give it full burial rites. Malaysians, the Parigi, and the Javanese all believe it is the older sibling that watches over the child and can even communicate with the child before the child learns it’s native language.

The Toba-Bataks believe it is a younger sibling, while native Icelanders and native Australians believe it is a guardian spirit. The Bagada and ancient Egyptians preserved the placenta in order to protect it’s spiritual qualities and, oftentimes, they would hold elaborate ceremonies, including processionals, to honor and protect the properties of the placenta.

Filipina mothers are known to bury the placenta with books, in hopes of a smart child, while the Hmong bury a girl’s placenta under the parent’s bed and a boy’s placenta under the floorboards of the threshold to the house. This practice arises from the belief that, after death, the Hmong will retrace their life’s path, arriving back at life’s door – the place of placental burial.

Placenta Burial
The Kikuyu and other African tribes will bury it with agriculture, believing it will nourish and sustain it’s people, as will the child’s heritage and future. Hawaiians practice a similar rite, believing the burial with a tree will root the child to his heritage, people, and land.

Placenta Pills

The Vietnamese and Chinese people believe in the life-giving forces of the placenta in another way – as being useful in consumption. As such, they are known to make tinctures, teas, broths, and pills out of the placenta. There are many recipes in ancient texts that are supposed to increase the vitality and potency of the placentas properties.

In Korea, it has been practice to burn the placenta and keep the ashes. Then, in times of illness, the ashes are used to make a drink for the child in order to ensure health and longevity. Similarly, in some regions of South America and with some Samoan people, the placenta is burnt, then the ashes are spread on the land of the family so as to ward off evil spirits.
Patience
'Art of Patience'
http://artofpatience.ourprairie.net

More recent ceremonies include lotus birthing, placenta art, and cosmetic use. In France and, until 1994, in Britain, the placenta was used in numerous cosmetic produces such as cold cream and anti-aging products.

Lotus Birthing

Claire Lotus Day began questioning the practice of cutting the cord in 1974, and the lotus birthing practice was born. Other Western women, in a search for reclaiming meaning from the institutionalized practice of Western birth, began making placenta prints as a way to commemorate and remember the transforming power of their child’s pregnancy and birth.

The list goes on and on. The bottom line, there is great room for interpretation, practice, and honor when we consider the amazing physical, emotional, nutritional, and, sometimes, spiritual uses of the placenta even after birth. If you are looking into one of these practices for your own birthing time, there are some things that you should know about preparation and care for your placenta.

Proper Care & Handling of Your Placenta

As soon as possible after the placenta has been birthed, it needs to be placed in a food-grade container (glass or ceramic is best, but double bagged Ziploc will also work), sealed tightly and refrigerated. If the family wants to delay cord cutting, this can be done up to three to four hours later, and then the cord must be severed, and the placenta quickly refrigerated in order to safely ingest the placenta later. Please note that you will be unable to have a lotus birth (leaving the cord attached until it detaches on its own) if you want to safely encapsulate your placenta.

A fresh placenta should be ‘processed’ within 24-48 hours for maximum benefits (this includes encapsulation, consumption, or burial). It can be done up to 7 days later, but will not be as potent. If it is not possible to process the placenta within 48 hours, it should be double bagged in Ziploc freezer bags and frozen. If encapsulating from the frozen state, the placenta should be completely thawed, which takes about 24 hours.

If you are planning a hospital birth, be sure to tell your care provider ahead of time that you are planning on taking your placenta home. You should plan on bringing a cooler with you to the hospital for care and ease of transport from hospital to home. Read more about how to best handle the release of your placenta from the hospital here, and download a hospital liability release form here.

Placental Planting/Burial

The most widely accepted means of ritualistic or symbolic disposal for the placenta is the burial. You can freeze your placenta for as long as you need, some people even wait for the babies first birthday as a commemoration of the event. Other reasons for the ceremony can be the planting of a child’s tree or child’s bush, closure/celebration of the birth, celebration of the end of the lying in period, or a birth healing ritual.

To bury your placenta, dig the right size hole to hold your placenta and bury it alone or with tokens indicative of the commemoration (herbs, dried flowers, ashes from a paper with a blessing or prayer written on it, etc.).

To use it for a tree/flower/bush planting ceremony, again, dig the right sized hold for your placenta. Score the sides of the hole so that the roots of the plant can take hold easier. Place the placenta at the bottom of the hole, cover with about an inch of soil, then place the plant in the hole and fill it on up. As your baby’s placenta breaks down, the plant will be nourished by it. If you choose to grow a fruit tree, the tree will bear fruit that has grown from your baby’s placenta. This fruit can then go on to nourish your family.

Some people add ritual to the ceremony by offering prayers, blessings, or thanks. Some women choose to have other women at the ceremony to offer a blessingway to the new family. Others ‘give up’ their negative feelings toward the child’s birth or a hurt that was done to them during the pregnancy, birth, or postpartum period. Others still will bury it as a symbolic ‘coming home’ of the baby, allowing the babies feet to ‘tramp down’ the dirt that is placed over the placenta.


Placental Art

Placenta prints are a newer, beautiful way to commemorate your child’s birth. Each placenta has a unique print and you can display it as a work of art in your home, knowing that the average person will not know what the print is, as it usually turns out to look like an abstract flower, tree, or heart.

You can make a placenta print with either a fresh or thawed placenta.

Supplies needed:
  • Placenta
  • Heavy weight art paper or canvas
  • Paint (optional)

If you have chosen to use paint, rinse and pat the placenta dry. Then paint the placenta in the colors you have chosen. If you have chosen to use the placentas blood, do nothing to the placenta before printing. Now, simply place the placenta vein side down onto your surface of choice. Press down, and then lift up. Voila! You have made a placenta print. If you chose to use the placenta’s own blood, then you can still use your placenta for placentophagy.

Placentophagy

The benefits of placental consumption include:
  • Decrease in baby blues and postpartum depression
  • Increase and enrich breast milk
  • Increase in energy
  • Decrease in lochia, postpartum bleeding
  • Decrease iron deficiency
  • Decrease insomnia or sleep disorders

The placenta's hormonal make-up is completely unique to the mother. No prescription, vitamin or herbal supplement can do what one placenta pill can. The theory is you are replacing the hormones you lost during the birthing process. Each woman's placenta is unique to her hormonal make-up. Interestingly, the first born male placenta is the most enriched. There are many ways to consume your placenta, including a placenta smoothie (done within the first 2-4 hours after birth), placenta meals, and encapsulation.

The Placenta Smoothie (immediately postpartum)

Supplies Needed:
  • Placenta
  • Sharp knife
  • Blender
  • Yogurt (your favorite flavor) or Orange Juice
  • Frozen fruit (your favorites – try to include Vit C rich fruits and some red/purple fruits)

Directions:

Cut off one or two 2-inch cubes of placenta. Place them, raw, into the blender. Add your base of choice (either yogurt or orange juice) and your frozen fruits of choice. Blend until smooth. Serve in a tall glass. The dark fruits will disguise the color of the placenta and the taste is just like any other fresh smoothie. It is a great way to start your postpartum recovery and it reduces immediate postpartum blood loss.

In Conclusion

I hope that you have found interest in this article, that it spurred some creative thought and introspective consideration. The placenta truly is an amazing organ, and continues to offer our children and ourselves, as mothers, benefit and harmony. It has the potential to give us pause, reflection, and emotional and physical health. It does not have to go in the trash or the pathology lab – it can give us so much more if we simply give it thought.

For more information:

9 comments:

Kristina said...

Wonderful post, very informative! I am planning on having my husband encapsulate my placenta, and already had instructions on how to do so, but I like your's better... so I'll print that for him as well!

Thank you!

Ann said...

Interesting info. Had no idea the different ways cultures honor the placenta. After reading the encapsulation instructions, I think I'll leave that to the "professionals"

Rachael said...

Love it! I made a placenta print for a friend, but it didn't turn out that good. I need more practice!

Lynnette said...

Love the post! For some reason, I am really intrigued by all of this. It is super interesting to learn about all of the options.

Paula said...

Wow, you wrote a book about placentas!

Amy Loupe said...

AWESOME post! I think I learned EVERYTHING I ever wanted to know about placentas. :)
I'm reposting this and dedicating it to my little brother, who refused to eat anything else at Thanksgiving at my house when he found out I still had my pla...centa in the freezer from M's birth! I couldn't help but insinuate that I'd used it in the dressing and gravy after that. ;)
I just LOVE how squicked out people get about the prospect of consuming placenta. I always remind them that we are mammals and that most every other mammal consumes their placenta after birth. There has to be a reason that they do it.....AND the research proves the benefits. :)

Kimberly said...

Very interesting post, excellent work!

Stephanie Holz said...

I'd love to know some of your references for this article! Especially what resources you used to learn about the different cultural practices. Thank you! Great article!

Nicole D said...

Sure thing Stephanie:

- Long, Croft E. The Placenta in Lore and Legend. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1963 April; 51(2): 233–241.

- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1304867/

- Tikanga Māori: living by Māori values, By Hirini Moko Mead, Sidney M. Mead, 2003

- http://tcn.sagepub.com/content/13/4/282.abstract

- Kiserud, T.; Acharya, G. (2004). "The fetal circulation". Prenatal Diagnosis 24 (13): 1049. doi:10.1002/pd.1062. PMID 15614842. edit

- Pough et al. 1992. Herpetology: Third Edition. Pearson Prentice Hall:Pearson Education, Inc., 2002.

Shepardson, Mary (1978). "Changes in Navajo Mortuary Practices and Beliefs". American Indian Quarterly. University of Nebraska Press.

- http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/0605web/ruminate.html

- http://web.archive.org/web/20080106075807/http://www.mothering.com/articles/pregnancy_birth/birth_preparation/amazing_placenta_side.html

- O. Boryak, “The Midwife in Traditional Ukrainian Culture: Ritual, Folklore and Mythology,” Midwifery Today 65 (Spring 2003): 53.

- http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/3360/bridging_the_cultural_divide_in_medicine/

and more... :) you can find a lot more of the references that I looked into through Sara Buckley's article. :)

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