The placenta forms inside the womb during pregnancy. It does not exist outside of pregnancy, yet without it, no child could be born. The placenta is also called the afterbirth, or secundines (‘that which comes second’). It helps to nourish your baby, and cleans wastes that form through pregnancy. The placenta is formed out of the same cells as your baby. In the Old Testament it was thought to be the External Soul.
The placenta is flat, and shaped like a pancake, and has two sides: one side (known as the maternal side) attaches firmly to the inside wall of your womb; the other side (the fetal side) faces the baby and provides nourishment through the umbilical cord. It looks a little like liver, and weighs around a fifth/sixth the weight of your baby.
The umbilical cord attaches baby to the placenta. Maternal blood does not actually flow through the placenta or baby – that could set up a rejection response. It pools around the tiny capillaries of the placenta, and there, nourishment is exchanged and waste is absorbed. Magical!
Most mammals including marsupials have placentas, also some snakes, scorpions and even worms, but they are not all the same. Only primates and humans have flat, circular placentas.
Sometimes problems can occur with the placenta, these will be covered in a different article.
After your baby is born, the placenta has done its job. The natural contraction of the womb usually makes the placenta separate, and it is born the same way your baby is born, vaginally, or by caesarean section. In the UK, your placenta is as much yours as your baby is, and you can decide what to do with it.
1. It allows your baby to receive oxygen and nutrition, before he or she can breathe or nourish themselves.
2. It releases hormones to encourage the body changes of pregnancy.
3. It protects your baby from harmful chemicals, however it cannot filter out alcohol, tobacco, and some drugs.
For our great-grandparents, the placenta may have held a different meaning. Some cultures regard the placenta as a sacred organ, and some use it to strengthen the mother after a difficult birth, or believe it prevents post-partum bleeding or depression. In China and Russia, human placenta has long been used as medicine for fatigue and infertility.
In modern days, most parents do not want to keep the placenta, and it has little meaning. It can be left with the hospital, which may use it for research or sell it to cosmetic or pharmaceutical companies. However, if you are undecided, you may ask hospital staff to store it in the freezer for a short time. This applies even if you have a home birth; of course you can use your own freezer too! (This may not apply outside UK.)
In Hawaii, a recent legal decision allowed parents to take home their placenta, for the first time since native customs were overturned. Native Hawaiian belief says that the placenta is part of the child, and should be planted with a tree, which will in turn nourish the child.
In many places, such as Thailand and Indonesia, and increasingly here in the UK, the placenta is buried. Indonesian tradition believes the placenta is the older sibling or twin of the child, or acts as a guardian angel. Some bury the placenta at home, to ensure the child will stay close to the family. Others take the placenta to sea, so that the child’s perspective will be as deep as the ocean, and they will travel far. The job of cleaning, preparing and burying the placenta is strictly the father’s business.
The place of burial may be significant. In many traditions, it should be a place that is not walked over. In Cambodia, this place may be covered with a spiky plant to keep evil spirits and dogs from interfering, because this could have long-term effects on the mother’s mental health. In Costa Rica, the place was covered with ashes to protect the mother from entuertos: retained blood clots, cramps, and infection.
The Kwakiutl of British Columbia are reported to have buried a daughter’s placenta at the high-tide mark so that she would grow up to be skilled at digging for clams. A Kwakiutl son’s placenta was exposed, so that, as ravens devoured it, he would gain prophetic vision in later life.
The Maori of New Zealand call the placenta whenua, which also means land. This nourishes the people, as the placenta nourishes the child. The Maori traditionally bury the baby’s whenua and pito (umbilical cord) on the marae, or tribal land, establishing a sacred link between the land and the child.
A European pagan custom suggests burying your placenta under a tree - a fruit tree for a girl, a nut tree for a boy. The thought is that the "tree" your baby grew from will go on to nourish another tree.
In Samoa, placentas were burned outside of the woman's home. This was believed to keep the child close to home or mean that they will always return.
Estonian and Russian tradition called the placenta “the child's pillow”. It was wrapped in a piece of cloth, placed in a birch-bark shoe (often with a bread crumb) and buried under the farm-room's floor so that a stranger, or a witch, could not find it.
In some traditions, the umbilical cord has its own meaning. This is intriguing, when we think of our culture’s recent interest in harvesting stem cells from the cord!
From Turkey comes the belief that where the cord goes, influences the growth of the child. Put it in the courtyard of a mosque, for the child to be a devout person. Put it into a school garden, or throw it over a wall (yes really), for the child to be an educated person. Bury it in a stable, for the child to be an animal lover, or throw into water, for the child to search for his/her destiny elsewhere. The placenta itself is buried.
One midwife says: ‘a nice thing to do with the cord is to dry it. Cut off cord from the placenta and milk the blood out. Then you can spiral the cord and lay on a piece of gauze. Leave it to dry in a safe place that has good air circulation, it takes 3-14 days. They turn out to be very beautiful. Some cultures use them for teething rings but we just like to look at them. My son had a true knot in his cord and it is interesting to see.’
In Hungary, traditions said that cutting the baby's cord less than six or seven inches from the body was an insult to the baby's aura.
In Icelandic tradition, the caul or fetal membrane appearing at birth, is associated with a guardian spirit called a fylgja. This fylgja can take many forms after birth, including an animal, an inanimate object (such as a cloak), or another human being. Interestingly, the caul itself has been regarded as bestowing a protective influence against drowning in Anglo-Saxon culture (this was cited at the beginning of Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield).
It is a very old idea that a child born with a caul over its face will be endowed with special powers or gifts. There was a 15th century(?) group called the benedanti in Italy who were people born with a caul, who did battle at night (in their sleep or during a trance) against witches who were bent on destroying the crops. They saved the caul from birth and wore it as an amulet of their station.
In Finland some Lapps used to believe that some people born with a caul would become werewolves in adulthood.
New traditions are still evolving, such as ‘lotus birth’. This means leaving the umbilical cord uncut, so that the baby remains attached to his/her placenta until the cord naturally separates - exactly as a cut cord does - 3 to 10 days after birth. This prolonged contact can be seen as a time of transition, allowing the baby to gently let go of his/her attachment to the mother's body. The placenta is preserved with herbs, oils and salt, and wrapped. After natural separation, it can be buried. Lotus birth is named for Clair Lotus Day, an American woman who developed the practice in 1974.
We even have placenta art, where you make prints using the placenta in its own blood, or with coloured inks. A personal memento of an important time.
Finally let me quote this from West Africa:
“The beautiful life-giving placenta is given back to the earth to continue its life-giving journey. Family and friends can be invited and a libation can be given to the ancestors. Thank the spirit guides and the placenta for protecting the child.
The ceremony can be followed with a feast. The ritual can be done in a way that fits each family’s lifestyle. Make it personal, spiritual, and fun!”
The word ‘placenta’ means ‘flat cake’. Recipes abound from Roman times; originally it seems a placenta was a layered pastry with sheep’s cheese and honey, as an offering to the God Jupiter! This persists in Romanian cooking, which preserves some ancient Roman traditions. Why not try this as a celebration dish, if you don’t feel like eating the real placenta as animals do, and perhaps our ancestors did!
Romanian ‘Placinta’ can be large or small and made with your own pastry, or why not try filo, ready made in packets. It is a small parcel of pastry with sweetened cheese, or apple, or other fillings. It is rather like a turnover or strudel.
Typical modern recipes suggest:
Cottage cheese or Ricotta
A little sugar – or try honey like the Romans
Salt to taste
Milk or sour cream to soften as needed.
The filling is put into small turnovers, or between layers of pastry in a larger pie. One version makes this as a round, pancake shape, with the filling in the middle. The outer part of the circle is slit and folded in, like a closed flower. It really does look the shape of a placenta. Originally it was deep-fried, but we can bake in the oven, or even try it as a pancake filling.
Take 6 eggs, 1 teaspoons of cinnamon powder, 6 tablespoons sugar, sugared vanilla, 100 g raisins and 300-400 g soft sweet cottage cheese (any cheese that is not salted and you can mix it into a soft paste). If you consider the mixture to be too thick add a spoon of sour cream.
Now, spread the layers of dough (have several put on top of each other, with a bit of oil in between) and place a line of filling in the middle. Roll the dough to obtain a cylinder (that looks like a loaf of bread) and place these rolls into the baking tray. Bake until crispy, for about 45 minutes. Sprinkle some sugar powder when ready and bon appetit. (The Romanian name of the dish: Placinta cu branza dulce si stafide)
I love this poem, I think it includes many of the ideas from different traditions, with a respect for what nourishes us all.
At the beginning of your world, I was part of you.
Made of the same luminous fabric, flesh of your flesh, of our father and mother’s being.
As we grew, we were separated but united. I fed you, breathed for you,
became a pathway for the flushing currents of our mother’s blood.
As you slept, I was your cradle and your guard; when you awoke I was your companion.
Together for that last day I leashed you the very limits of our linking line before
releasing you to the touch of others – lovers, yes – but surely none will hold
you as nearly, as sweetly or as softly as I did.
As our connection was severed you wept for me once, then were gone.
Carry me deep in your heart as you bury me in the soil of our home, for I am the earth of your making.
Published with permission
Kate Alice 2002
Whenua is a Maori (New Zealand) word meaning both land-environment, and placenta.