The placenta is amazing. It is an organ that’s entire purpose is to help a baby grow during pregnancy. It creates hormones to help support the pregnancy. It also transports nutrients and oxygen from the woman to her fetus through the umbilical cord and then takes wastes products from the fetus back to the woman.
Placentas only start to develop during pregnancy, and once the baby is born, so too is the placenta. It has done its job, and we are entirely grateful.
You can see what it looks like in this diagram:
There’s so much that is fascinating about the placenta (I know, I know, but really! It’s true!). It weighs about 1 1/2 pounds at birth. Placentas transfer antibodies to the growing baby to improve their immunity after they are born. One placenta can support twins (but sometimes they each have their own).
I could go on and on, but here we are going to talk about the placenta after birth (actually, the placenta is often referred to as the after-birth).
In many Western medical settings, after the baby is born, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut (more on this in a moment), the placenta is inspected (to make sure it is healthy and that it came out in one piece), and then it is thrown away or burned with medical waste.
And this is completely fine.
However, this is not the path that everyone takes.
Research has found that by delaying the cord clamping until after the cord has stopped pulsing (which can be a matter of seconds or minutes), babies can receive a significant health benefit.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists states, “Delayed umbilical cord clamping is associated with significant neonatal benefits in preterm infants, including improved transitional circulation, better establishment of red blood cell volume, decreased need for blood transfusion, and lower incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis and intraventricular hemorrhage.” They recommend the practice whenever possible for pre and full-term babies.
After the umbilical cord is cut, some people choose to take their placentas home.
In New Zealand, Maori families often bury the placenta to help the child connect to their culture and land. In Cambodia, many believe that burying the placenta helps the child stay safe, as long as they are nearby. There are many cultures around the world that bury placentas for spiritual purposes, and many families in the United States have kept the tradition alive.
Some women decide not to have the umbilical cord cut at all; a practice called lotus birth.
In a lotus birth, the umbilical cord is never clamped or cut and is instead allowed to detach from the baby naturally, a process that takes about three to 10 days. After the birth, the placenta is washed and left to air dry for a day.
Some people apply salt to it to keep it from spoiling. It is then wrapped in a cloth, which is also wrapped around the baby. This can be done in a cesarean birth as well.
Parents often choose to have a lotus birth for cultural, spiritual or traditional reasons, many believing that placentas are sacred and should detach on their own, instead of physically removing them.
Lotus births are certainly controversial—as some medical professionals have advised against them.
Dr. Patrick O'Brien, spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, said, “If left for a period of time after the birth, there is a risk of infection in the placenta which can consequently spread to the baby. The placenta is particularly prone to infection as it contains blood. Within a short time after birth, once the umbilical cord has stopped pulsating, the placenta has no circulation and is essentially dead tissue.”
Dr. Rob Atlas, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, told She Knows that he has “declined to allow moms in his care to have a lotus birth,” believing there to be no medical benefit to the practice.
The trouble is that there have been no studies done on the benefits and risks of lotus birth. So people on “both sides” are using their best judgment, and not research, to make their decisions.
Ultimately the decision to have a lotus birth is very personal, and one that only you can make, with the guidance of your medical provider.