You’ve likely heard the word placenta a lot during your pregnancy, but do you know what it is exactly? And why it is so important? Well, it’s a truly fascinating organ, that is sometimes even dubbed “the tree of life” for not only its incredible life-giving powers but also its appearance which can sometimes resemble a tree.
What is the placenta?
The placenta is an organ that develops and functions purely to nurture your baby, and once your baby is born the placenta is no longer needed.
The placenta attaches to the inside of the uterus during pregnancy and connects to the foetus via the umbilical cord, delivering blood, oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the baby. It also produces hormones and antibodies throughout the pregnancy and also transfers waste from the baby’s blood including carbon dioxide.
What happens to the placenta during birth?
As the placenta’s sole purpose is to nurture and grow your baby, once the baby is born the placenta is no longer required and must be removed.
After you have given birth to your baby, your body will continue to experience contractions and this is to allow you to “birth” the placenta. You will be given an injection of synthetic oxytocin to speed this process up, so your placenta will usually be ‘born’ about 5-10 minutes after your baby. Your midwife or doctor will gently pull on the cord to help this happen.
Your midwife or doctor will need to inspect the placenta closely to ensure the whole lot has been removed, and if any has been left it will need to be removed to prevent complications.
There are a number of potential problems you can face with the placenta during pregnancy that can affect both your and your baby’s health, including:
1. Placenta praevia
Placenta Praevia occurs when the placenta either partially or wholly covers the cervix and can cause bleeding throughout the pregnancy and birth, and can hinder a vaginal birth. Often the placental position will move throughout the pregnancy and rectify itself, but if not your doctor/midwife will monitor both you and your baby closely, may recommend rest and a caesarean section.
2. Placental abruption (abruptio placentae)
This occurs when the placenta peels away from the uterus before birth and can stop oxygen and nutrients from getting to your baby, as well as major bleeding. It can either partially come away or completely and may result in emergency early birth.
3. Placenta accreta
This occurs when the placenta remains attached to the uterus after birth (either partially or completely) and can be life-threatening if not treated. If any or all of the placenta is left after giving birth there is a risk of infection and/or haemorrhage. If the doctor cannot get the placenta out this is known as a retained placenta and then you may have to undergo surgery. In severe cases, your doctor may have to remove your uterus (hysterectomy). These are rare, but increasing in number, due to rising caesarean section rates.
What are the symptoms to look out for?
If you suffer from vaginal bleeding, severe abdominal or back pain or are experiencing uterine contractions (before 37 weeks) you should call your doctor immediately.
What happens to the placenta after birth?
There are some cultures that believe so much in the incredible powers of the placenta that they opt to consume it after birth. In Chinese medicine, this is called placentophagy, but it is also common in a number of cultures. Some cultures opt to bury it, and another option growing in popularity in recent years is placenta encapsulation which turns it into capsules that you can consume following the birth.
If you are interested in your options surrounding the placenta after birth, there are businesses that offer certain services, however always exercise caution as the industry is not yet regulated, and always speak with your doctor/midwife about your intentions first.