Even though the placenta is crucial in the development of a baby, it is rarely discussed, and the majority of people don’t realise just how amazing it really is. When your baby is inside the womb, also known as the uterus, it is essentially living in water and there definitely isn’t any air in there. So, how does baby breath? Please welcome ‘The placenta’. The placenta is an organ that is created only during pregnancy, and its function is to keep your baby alive.
Now, this incredible organ has a few essential roles but let’s start with the big one – oxygen. Baby will receive their oxygen supply through the placenta via the umbilical cord. That’s right, the umbilical cord isn’t some sort of bungee cord that stops babies from falling on the ground during birth…And yes, someone has actually said that. The umbilical cord has two arteries and one vein, the vein is full of oxygen, and the two arteries are lower in oxygen (see the picture to the right). The vein and arteries aren’t floating around freely though they have a protective jelly-like substance, called Wharton’s jelly. This magical jelly protects the umbilical cord from being squashed and potentially cutting off baby’s blood (and consequently oxygen) supply.
So, we have the baby floating around in the uterus, and the umbilical cord attached to both the baby and the placenta. Is the placenta just floating around in there as well? A good question, no, the placenta is attached to the wall of the uterus. The placenta must stay attached until birth, as this is how the baby is receiving blood flow. Multiple veins and arteries are going through the wall of the uterus, so the placenta has access to mum’s blood supply. The baby receives oxygen-rich blood through the arteries and sends out waste, like carbon dioxide, through the veins.
Nine (mostly) blissful months pass and it’s time for baby to come out (yay!), and so it’s the end of the road for our friend the placenta. She will be birthed during the third stage of labour (that’s the stage just after the baby comes out) and checked by your midwife, doctor or even yourself. It is important to make sure that the placenta is intact so you know there is no retained placenta in your uterus as this can lead to complications, like a postpartum haemorrhage. The placenta can be birthed physiologically (no help needed) or you can opt for an injection of synthetic oxytocin to try and speed things up, this is called ‘active management’.
In most circumstances, the placenta is thrown away after birth and given little afterthought, even though she did all that hard work! However, some cultures do things a little differently. According to a study by Young and Benyshek (2010), 109 different cultures have specific ways of properly treating the placenta after birth, and burial was the most common with 55% of cultures choosing this method to honour the placenta. An example of this is how the Igbo in Ghana and Nigeria give the placenta full burial rights. They believe that “burying the placenta connects the child to the welfare and fertility spirits of the ground” (Young & Benyshek, 2010).
Well there you have it, the placenta is one impressive organ.
My name is Monique Stone and I am a birth doula in the Perth metro area. I specialise in supporting women to have positive and empowering births. You can subscribe to my newsletter on the bottom of this page, sign up today and receive a free birth affirmations print out. I am based in the southern suburbs of Perth and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my Facebook @positivebirthdoula and Instagram @positivebirth_doula
Young, S. M., & Benyshek, D. C. (2010). In Search of Human Placentophagy: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Human Placenta Consumption, Disposal Practices, and Cultural Beliefs. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 49(6), 467–484. https://doi.org/10.1080/03670244.2010.524106