The placenta is a beautiful organ. It is the only organ that develops and grows within another organ. It is responsible for growing a healthy baby. It is the bridge between a mother and her baby in the womb. In some cultures, it is called the called bucha-co-satthi, meaning baby's friend.(1) Others see the placenta as the baby's protective older sibling.(2) For these reasons alone, it is unique, amazing and beautiful.
The baby and the placenta are made from the same cells, which are formed through combination of the egg and the sperm. Once implantation occurs on about day six after fertilization, the gestation period begins and the fertilized egg and the placenta begin to develop separately, still connected. The placenta stays attached to the uterine wall while the fetus has the ability to move around the uterus.
The placenta is the fetus's only source of food, blood, oxygen, vitamins and nutrients. All of these vital resources are carried from placenta to fetus via the cord. These resources come from the mother's bloodstream, which is why a healthy nutritious balance of whole foods is so important during pregnancy. Iron is especially important because iron increases the hemoglobin level in the blood; hemoglobin carries oxygen in the body. Once the baby is born and the cord stops pulsing, that baby is no longer getting its oxygen from the placenta. When baby takes a first breath, the lungs begin to work and baby begins breathing on his or her own. In order for the baby to receive all the blood and oxygen required, the cord must stop pulsing before being cut.
What should be done with the placenta once it has served its purpose? Women who have a baby in the hospital most likely will have their placentas taken away for testing or for incineration unless they specifically request to take it home. When I think about my placenta being incinerated, I am so sad. The fact that no one ever told my parents that they had other options makes me angry.
Many people bury their baby's placenta under a tree or in the garden. That way, they will always know where it is. The nutrients from the placenta also make a great fertilizer! The downside to planting the placenta is that if you move away from that home, you have to leave it there. It also needs to be buried at least one foot deep in order to keep animals from digging it up.
Another option is lotus birth, where the placenta is left attached to the baby via the cord until the cord falls off on its own. Many people believe that the baby will separate from the placenta when he or she is ready and that cutting the cord intervenes in a natural process. The placenta may be covered with salts and/or herbs (great ones are rosemary and sage) and then covered with a diaper or cloth pad and kept close to baby. Lotus birth can be an incredibly spiritual experience for everyone involved. It is also a great way to keep visitors away for a few days! The downside to having a lotus birth is that the placenta may possibly hinder physical bonding if either of the partners feels uncomfortable with the process.
Another popular method for handling the extrauterine placenta is to consume it. If a woman loses a lot of blood at a birth, some midwives recommend that the placenta immediately be cooked with some onion and served. Women who have done this tell me that it tastes like a combination of liver and beef. I also have seen some women take a small piece of fresh placenta after the birth and consume it in order to feel grounded after the birth.
Women who cannot quite stomach eating their placenta can use it in another way. They can turn the placenta into capsules and still receive all of the amazing benefits that it has to offer. Often a local midwife or student midwife will be willing to take the placenta after the birth and bring it back within the next couple of days in pill form. The organ is steamed and then cooked at a low temperature (below 100 degrees F) for 8–12 hours. Then it is ground up into powder form and placed in capsules. I like to burn a candle while making the medicine and then give it to the woman along with the pills. The candle helps to ground me while making the medicine and helps me to think about the birth that this placenta came from.
Because the pills are in capsules, they are tasteless and can be taken with other vitamins. I had one client who could, nevertheless, taste the placenta in this form, so she simply opened the capsules and sprinkled the powder over some yogurt and could not taste it then.
Placenta medicine can benefit the women who take it for a number of reasons. In Chinese medicine, placenta medicine is called Zi He Che and is given for various health problems, including infertility, impotence and asthma. It is given to correct an imbalance in the body.
After a woman has a baby, many changes quickly begin to occur in her body. Hormones revert to pre-pregnancy levels, organs shift and blood levels decrease—just to name a few. This transition can sometimes be difficult. Placentas contain hormones which, when given in the postpartum period, can make the change easier. Ingesting the placenta also can help to prevent postpartum depression. I have seen quite a few women who had postpartum depression with previous pregnancies take placenta medicine after a current pregnancy and feel completely different.
Placenta medicine also has nutritional benefits. It is a high source of iron and protein. Because the placenta is the bridge between mother and baby, it contains all of the same vitamins and nutrients that mother has passed across to baby. This may be especially important if a woman experiences postpartum hemorrhage.
The recommended dosage of placenta pills is one twice a day for two to three weeks. Each placenta can usually make about one hundred pills, depending on the size. The rest of the pills that are not used immediately can be stored (in the refrigerator) for "low" times, either emotionally or physically. They also can be saved for menopause or other big changes.
Another use for placenta is as a homeopathic remedy for the baby. This requires taking a piece of the placenta after the birth and letting it dilute in alcohol for a few days and then going through a process of diluting and succussing (repeatedly shaking vigorously) the mixture. This remedy is comparable to the baby's own special rescue remedy. It can be used for traumatic experiences or just a simple rebalancing. The energy released during the making of this medicine is quite astounding. Every time I have made this special remedy, the liquid actually changed color during succussing (it appears cloudy and white) and I felt the energy through my hands and arms.
Placenta prints are a terrific complement to any of the above methods. They can be done even if it is decided that the placenta be buried, consumed or kept attached to the newborn. You will need a couple pieces of paper (good canvas paper works the best) and preferably a chux pad or a lot of newspaper. Begin by letting a lot of the extra blood drain from the placenta onto the chux pad. Once this is done, place the placenta with the baby's side facing up (you can do both sides, but most people prefer using the baby's side because it resembles a tree and is quite often said to be the "tree of life"). Slowly lower the paper onto the placenta and gently press down. Lift up slowly and the print should be seen. It may be wise to do a few in case one smears or doesn't work properly. I like to do placenta prints with children that are present at the birth. It helps them to feel involved and is similar to painting for them.
The placenta is an incredibly important and spiritual piece of life. It has many uses, both spiritual and medicinal. It can provide whatever is needed and should not be wasted. If none of the above methods seem appealing, try finding a midwifery school in the area to which the placenta can be donated for teaching purposes. At least it will not be wasted. We are responsible for treating the placenta with respect for everything that it has done.
Kelly Graff is a student at Birthwise Midwifery School. She is currently completing her training at the Hollywood Birth Center. She was first taught by Robin Doolittle, CPM, about placenta medicine and then carried the knowledge with her to Australia where she helped women to appreciate their placentas. You may contact her for instructions to make medicinal recipes. Do not attempt them without proper instruction from someone who has previous experience with placenta medicine, as very specific directions must be followed.
Dunham, Carroll. Mamatoto. Viking Penguin, 1991. Page 108.
Editor's Note: For further information on the placenta and its uses, don't miss Placenta: Gift of Life, by Motherbaby Press.
If you enjoyed this article, you'll enjoy Midwifery Today magazine! Subscribe Did you know that—
In the 16th century a piece of placenta was added to the mother's first postpartum meal in southern Germany?
Or that in the 1970s Cuba exported 40 tons of human placentas to a French laboratory after discovering that it could be used to successfully treat vitiligo, a condition that causes the skin to lose pigment?
Or that, even today, in many areas of the world, if a child needs special protection, a dried part of the placenta is tied around his neck?
These facts and more can be found in Motherbaby Press's seminal publication: Placenta: The Gift of Life. Do you want to use your baby's placenta for a birth ritual or as an aid to bonding and breastfeeding? This book contains comprehensive and up-to-date information on how the placenta has been used in the past, medical uses throughout the world, and how individuals can make use of the placenta in a variety of ways. This may involve burial under a certain kind of tree, drying for use as a lucky charm, or even ingestion as a medicine.
Placenta: The Gift of Life combines the experiences of midwives, doctors and naturopaths with our ancestors' traditions, and saves some old recipes from oblivion. Learn about:
Historical uses of the placenta
The use of the placenta in postpartum healing and breastfeeding
Regulation and current medical and cosmetic uses of the placenta in various countries
Scientific evidence supporting the medicinal uses of placenta
How to process placenta for medical use
Recipes for using the placenta
While numerous articles have been written on the subject, this unique and groundbreaking book is the only guide to using placenta currently on the market.