While your baby is developing in the uterus, there is something else growing in your uterus which is responsible for keeping your baby alive and nourished. Yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s the placenta. You must have heard about it but what does it actually do?
In this blog post, I’ll be sharing some awesome facts about the placenta.
What is the placenta?
The placenta is a temporary multifunctional organ which is pancake shaped that is made up of blood vessels that provide nutrients, oxygen, water and antibodies to fight infection and diseases and also helps to remove waste. It’s attached to the uterine wall and connects your little one via the umbilical cord. It has the same genetic material as your baby. If you were expecting twins, you may have two placentas. If you are expecting non-identical twins (Fraternal), they would have their own placentas. Identical twins may have one or two placentas it depends on when the fertilised egg split. If the embryo splits in two, one placenta will support both twins and they will have an umbilical cord linking them both to the one shared placenta. If the split happened earlier, you may have two placentas one for each baby.
What does the placenta do?
The placenta is the lifeline between you and your baby. Throughout your pregnancy it enables your baby to eat and breathe with your help. As your blood flows through your uterus, the placenta absorbs the nutrients, immune molecules and oxygen that circulates through your body, then it moves these across to the amniotic sac through the umbilical cord to your baby. Your baby passes carbon dioxide and other waste which he/she doesn’t need back to you via the placenta. Your blood and baby’s blood passes through the placenta, but they never mix. It stops baby’s cells from entering your bloodstream too. The placenta also acts as a barrier. It’s vital that germs within your body don’t make your baby sick and that your body doesn’t reject your baby as a foreign body. It keeps most but not all bacteria and viruses out of the womb. The placenta also produces hormones and molecules call human placental lactogen (HPL) which is connected to milk production, relaxin, oxytocin, progesterone and oestrogen, which you both need during pregnancy. Some of the molecules encourage new blood vessels to form between your body and the placenta and in-betweens the placenta and your baby carrying oxygen to the baby. Some molecules help your body prepare to make milk and stop you from lactating before you give birth. Some help boost your metabolism and help supply energy for you and your baby.
When does the placenta develop?
It starts developing very early around week 4. Seven or eight days af the egg has been fertilised, a mass of cells implants into the uterine wall. Some cells from this mass split away which will burrow deeper into the uterine wall. Instead of preparing to form into a baby, it forms into the placenta then over the next two months, the placenta develops. It starts off with small capillaries which grow in to large vessels, providing your baby with oxygen and nutrients. As you approach your second trimester, the placenta would have completed its massive development.
When does the placenta mature and start to function?
Between weeks 10 and 12 of pregnancy, the placenta will have matured and taken over from a structure called corpus luteum which is a hormone secreting structure that develops in an ovary after the ovum has been discharged but dies after a few days unless pregnancy has started. This structure helps support your baby for the rest of your pregnancy and will continue to grow larger as your baby grows. In the first trimester the corpus luteum performs the placenta’s essential functions while the organ grows and develops to take over. The corpus luteum is a collection of cells that produces progesterone and some oestrogen. It forms every month after ovulation and the follicle that released the egg during that month’s cycle.
If you are not pregnant, the corpus luteum dies about 14 days after ovulation, which triggers your period. When you get pregnant, the structure continues to grow and produce hormones that support the embryo until the placenta matures and takes over. As you can imagine forming an organ takes a load of energy which is why women are so tired in first trimester and need plenty of sleep and rest which is normal to feel this way.
Where is the placenta located?
In most pregnancies, the placenta is located in the upper part of the uterus but sometimes the placenta can attach itself lower in the uterus or on the front of the uterine wall. The placenta is completely separate from your baby and is attached to the uterine wall and connects your baby via the umbilical cord your baby is not in the placenta but a membrane call the amniotic sac that surrounds and protects your baby whilst in the womb. This sac contains amniotic fluid and it ruptures which the baby is ready to be born.
How much does it weigh?
Well that depends on how far you are in your pregnancy. Weeks 10-12 the average placenta weighs nearly 2 ounces, by week 18-20 weeks; it will weigh about 5 ounces. The placenta continues to grow along with the uterus throughout the second trimester but in most pregnancies, it starts to slow down in the third trimester and your baby gets bigger. By the time you are full term the placenta will weigh around 1.5 pounds.
A healthy lifestyle is really important for the placenta to grow and function fully so that means smoking, drinking and using illegal drugs are totally off limits. But even if you follow a healthy diet, things can still go wrong with the placenta which can be down to genetics or just misfortune. Other factors can influence placenta health e.g. blood pressure, age, C-sections and being pregnant with multiples.
Here are some examples of placenta problems:
Enlarged Placenta – a placenta that has grown bigger than normal
Anterior Placenta – a placenta that has grown in front of the uterus
Placenta Previa – a placenta that covers part or the entire cervix
Placental Abruption – early separation of the placenta from the uterine wall
Placenta Accreta – a placenta that is attached too firmly to the uterine wall
If you experience bleeding, severe abdominal or back pain, or rapid uterine contractions when you haven’t reached full-term, you need to talk to your doctor. In most cases, conditions like these just mean your doctor will be extra vigilant. Your healthcare provider should watch for any abnormalities during your ultrasounds.
Delivering the placenta
When the big day arrives and you give birth and your baby is out and the umbilical cord is cut, the placenta has no use so you will have to give birth to it which is called stage 3 of childbirth. You will continue to have contractions and your practitioner my speed things up by pulling on the umbilical cord or massaging your uterus. What you do with the placenta afterwards is up to you.
Here are some options on how the placenta can be utilised after giving birth:
The cord isn’t cut after the baby is born but allowed to separate naturally from the baby over time. The cord naturally clamps shut after it has stopped pulsating and then slowly dries out to a twig like consistency. Separation usually occurs after 3 days after birth. To prevent infections and offensive odours the placenta is washed twice a day with water, then a blend of herbs and Epsom salts are massaged in to it then it’s placed into a waterproof bag then into a cloth bag. Sounds a bit bizarre, but people who have had a lotus birth report that their babies have a calmer transition from being in the womb to living in the outside world which in turn strengthens the bond between mother and baby.
This involves drying out the whole placenta, either in an oven or a dehydrator then it is ground into a powder which is made into capsules and taken when needed in tablet form. Why would women opt for this you may ask? Well, the placenta is full of nutrients and hormones that contain rejuvenating properties that can help restore strength and energy after giving birth, as well as potentially warding off postnatal depression. There are Doulas in the UK that will come and collect your placenta and return it to you in tablet form for a reasonable fee.
You can receive the benefits by putting the placenta in a smoothie to help you recover after birth. Some may find the concept of eating their placenta off putting or really weird but if you decide to do this; you can freeze it in portions and add small amounts to your fruit smoothie whenever you need a boost during your postnatal period. Women have reported it doesn’t alter the taste of the smoothie.
Plant a tree
In places like Indonesia it is quite normal to bury the placenta and plant a tree on top of it as it is considered sacred and this is a ritualistic, part of the birth process to give back to Mother Earth and it is also considered to connect the human who it nourished to their place of birth. If this option resonates with you make sure you dig deep enough so it doesn’t attract the local wildlife.
This can make a pretty picture. The print resembles a tree with branches when it’s finished and it’s quite unique. When washed you can paint the side of the placenta you wish to print in your chosen colours, and then press it onto a quality piece of paper.
Drying the cord
You can shape the cord into a heart or a flower or any shape you wish when the cord is pliable. Then allow it to dry and it as a keepsake. There are companies who can make this into jewellery for you too.
If you’re not sure what you do with your placenta, you can freeze it until you make your mind up. People have been known to keep their placentas for months or years before deciding.
The Placenta is the only organ that reproductive age humans grow entirely from scratch.
How awesome is that?