By Dawn Francis-Pester
Web Exclusive – October 17, 2008
It had been two years since Jonah was born. The family marked the occasion in a quiet, relaxed manner: two candles on a vegan carob cake, a few balloons, and a small gathering of relatives. Around this time, Carrie also decided to honor Jonah’s placenta that had been sitting in the freezer since his birth.
Carrie describes the birth as “powerful, calm, and beautiful.” She refused painkillers, along with the drug Syntometrine, which is routinely used in England to speed up the delivery of the placenta. It took about an hour for Jonah’s placenta to birth. Their older son Kyran and the midwife then cut the umbilical cord together and tied it using homemade cord ties the family had woven.
Later that evening, while mother and baby slept, Marc and Kyran wrapped the placenta up and put it in the freezer. Despite numerous plans, it stayed there for nearly two years before they decided what to do with it.
“We were thankful for the life the placenta had given to our son and wanted to give this back to the earth,” Carrie explains. “I use a Mooncup for my monthly cycle and also return this blood to the earth.” They decided to bury the placenta in the soil under a tree that would bear fruit, rather than a purely ornamental plant. Kyran chose an apple tree as apples are his favorite fruit. As they had not kept Kyran’s placenta four years earlier, they cut Jonah’s placenta in half to nourish a separate apple tree for each son.
Weighing about a sixth of the baby’s body weight, the placenta has a vital role to play in the uterus, nourishing the growing fetus but also protecting it by filtering out harmful substances. Many Western midwives often seem uneasy around the placenta, fearing it may remain partially attached to the uterine wall, preventing the uterus from contracting evenly to close off the blood vessels. This is known as a “retained placenta” and can lead to hemorrhaging, which can put the mother’s life at risk. For this reason, many administer Syntometrine, a drug containing synthetic oxytocin, to encourage the uterus to contract quickly. Once the placenta has detached, it is usually removed from sight and immediately discarded.
More traditional midwives, particularly in other cultures, see the third stage of labor, or the birthing of the placenta, as an important part of the whole birth package. These midwives favor natural methods of encouraging the placenta to detach, rather than resorting to drugs. These methods range from encouraging the mother to cough or breathe out forcefully, to nipple stimulation through breastfeeding the newborn. Instead of cutting the umbilical cord as soon as the baby is born, they wait until the baby’s breathing is well established. As long as the cord remains attached, a maximum amount of blood flows out of the placenta so that its volume reduces and it can detach more easily.
It is the powerful, life-giving role of the placenta that has led many cultures to see it as a mystical organ that is to be cherished and honored. In some cultures, it is seen as the baby’s twin, companion, or even mother, believed to have its own spirit that must be appeased. Various traditions and rituals surrounding the use of the placenta grew because of these beliefs. Some of these traditions are growing more popular in Western culture today as parents become more aware of the benefits of actively connecting with each stage of the birthing experience, for the new baby as well as for the rest of the immediate family.
Through the ages, the placenta has been honored in a variety of ways across the world. As with other aspects of natural birthing, it is the quest of modern parents to rediscover these rituals and traditions, and then decide which best suits their family and living circumstances.
Honoring the Placenta
If you are looking for a way to honor your baby’s placenta and cherish the third stage of labor, you may find it helpful to start with a blank canvas and begin by selecting a few ideas that resonate with you and fit in with your family character and beliefs, perhaps adjusting it here and there to suit the practicalities of modern life.
Burying the Placenta
This is a ritual that has long been observed in many countries. For nine months, the placenta acted as the life-giving force in the womb, and this is now transferred to the ground where the placenta can nurture the soil. Interestingly, the word whenua in Maori means land as well as placenta, and illustrates the connection between the two in this particular culture. Burying the placenta under a tree, as Carrie and her family did, is perhaps particularly symbolic because of the image of the placenta as the tree of life. Some cultures also burn the placenta, often with the same idea of returning the life force to nurture the land.
If you choose to bury or burn the placenta, you will need to think of a suitable spot. It may present a challenge to find an area of land with some significance for your family if you don’t have your own garden. Carrie was considering moving and decided to plant the apple trees in large plant pots that they could carry with them to a new home.
As well as nourishing the baby, the placenta contains natural oxytocins that help it contract after the birth, as well as many hormones. It is thought that these chemicals can help repair hormonal imbalances in the mother, as well as encourage the flow of breastmilk, which is why mothers through the ages have routinely consumed their placentas in a variety of ways. It is worth observing that all carnivorous animals in their natural state consume the placenta, too. This is partly to prevent predators from tracking down the new baby and mother, but also to provide an effortless meal for the mother who would be too weak to hunt down food after the birth.
One traditional method of consumption was to cut up the placenta and cook it in a kind of soup or stew. This is sometimes practiced today, and women report frying the placenta with onions and garlic. In some cultures the placenta was hung up and dried, before being ground into a powder. This could then be made into tablet form and administered to the new mother. Today homeopaths and Chinese medicine practitioners will sometimes offer to dehydrate the placenta for you and make it into tablets.
Prints using the placenta are becoming more popular. The side that was attached to the mother is bumpy and course; the other is softer, so you can experiment with different textures. The placenta can be placed on a sheet of thick paper and will leave a tree shaped print once removed if the cord is left hanging down. This can then be painted over using the placental blood that will later turn brown, or it may be filled in or traced over using ink. Instead of an actual print, some mothers prefer to do more original artwork using the blood.
Tips for Using Placenta
- Read, Research, Discuss
Find out as much as you can about your options for using the placenta. Think about symbolism as well as your personal reasons for celebrating the third stage of labor. Try to involve the whole family in the decision-making process. Then make sure whoever will be present at the birth is aware of your plans. Write them into your birth plan, particularly if you are having a hospital delivery and may not know which midwife will be on duty that day.
- Be Practical
Make sure there is a suitable container or wrapping for the placenta. If you wish to use the fresh placenta you should do so within about five days of the birth, so you will need to have prepared art materials, or whatever you have chosen to use, before the birth. You can refrigerate the placenta, but this will affect the texture and shape if you want to do artwork. If you need some time to decide on your plans, you can put the placenta in the freezer to defrost at a later date.
- Be Prepared
You may move or have more children. If possible, try to accommodate changes. For instance, bury the placenta in a pot that can be transported elsewhere, or leave space nearby for the addition of future placentas. For artwork, you may wish to buy more than one identical picture frame or sheet of special paper, so that the placenta print of a sibling can match.
- Decide What to Tell
Generally people won’t ask, “So what are you doing with the placenta?” so it is up to you whether or not you wish to share your plans. You may wish to be armed with a few scientific or anthropological details about why you chose to use the placenta, but don’t feel you need to justify your decision or even talk about it if you would prefer not to.
Honoring the placenta is a way to honor life and your body’s ability to give birth. Just as Carrie’s family found that a small ritual allowed them to honor her sons’ births, you can find your own way to pay tribute to the birthing process and the miracle of life.
Dawn Francis-Pester is a freelance writer living in London. She writes about parenting and education, as well as green and alternative living.