Placenta: Body Parts Series – Boundless Birth
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Placenta: Body Parts Series

Placenta: Body Parts Series

Placenta and umbilical cord

Let’s talk about your placenta! What is this strange organ? How does it grow? And most of all, what happens to it after your baby is born? This one pound piece of tissue is the key to sustaining your baby and your pregnancy.

What does the placenta do?

The placenta is an organ that grows inside of the uterus when you are pregnant, starting at about week 4 of pregnancy. Its purpose is to send nutrients and oxygen to the developing baby, and to take away waste and carbon dioxide. Additionally, it produces hormones that change both you and your baby’s bodies to prepare for birth. After the baby is born, the placenta detaches from its place inside of the uterus and is expelled from the body. 

The placenta acts like a fence between the parent’s body and the baby’s, preventing maternal blood and proteins from reaching the fetus. Most bacteria and viruses are also prevented from passing through – some notable exceptions are rubella virus, Zika virus, and cytomegalovirus (CMV), which can cross the barrier and cause damage to the developing baby. After about week 13 of pregnancy, antibodies from the parent pass through the barrier and give the baby their first immunities. This immune protection is powerful and lasts for the first few months of life.

What does it look like?

The placenta is about 9 inches (22cm) wide and nearly an inch thick – the size of a dinner plate! Typically, it weighs a little more than a pound (500g). 

The umbilical cord attaches the baby to it to let the nutrients and oxygen flow from parent to baby, and back again. When you examine one, you can see the “tree of life,” which is branches of blood vessels spanning the surface and collecting at the cord. Most of the time, your placenta is a big, flat disc, but sometimes it can be made up of a few different “lobes” connected together by blood vessels. 

Personally, I think placentas are beautiful. You can see all the branches of the Tree of Life and imagine how the blood flowing through them allowed the baby to grow. For nine months, everything that your baby needed came through this one small piece of your body. To me, that’s magical.

Where does it grow?

Normally, the placenta grows toward the top and to the back of the uterus. Sometimes, it attaches on the front (anterior), and occasionally it will attach toward the bottom of the uterus (low-lying). Rarely, it covers the cervix completely (known as placenta previa), which prevents a baby from being born vaginally and requires a cesarean birth.

Do I have to push the placenta out?

If you deliver your baby vaginally, yes! The placenta is usually born between 5 and 30 minutes after the baby, during the “third stage”of labor. You will have to push a little to deliver it, but it’s nothing at all like pushing out a baby. Most people say that it just feels strange and squishy. If your baby is born via cesarean surgery, your obstetrician will remove it from the uterus by hand.

Can the placenta cause problems? What happens if it does?

In rare cases, yes, issues can come up during pregnancy and birth.

  • Placental abruption is when it breaks away from the uterus too soon, before the baby is born. This causes bleeding and prevents the baby from receiving oxygen. This is an obstetric emergency. A small or partial abruption may require bed red, but a major abruption may possibly need preterm or cesarean delivery.
  • Placenta accreta is when it is implanted too deeply into the wall of the uterus, which can cause increased blood loss after delivery. Your medical providers will manage your bleeding, but treatment may require a blood transfusion. If you’ve had a cesarean birth before, your risk of placenta accreta is higher. 
  • Like I mentioned earlier in this post, placenta previa is when it grows over the cervix. This condition is diagnosed prenatally with an ultrasound exam. Depending on severity, your care provider may prescribe bed rest or abstinence from sex. Normally placenta previa requires a cesarean birth, but cases that occur in early pregnancy may resolve on their own.
  • Retained placenta is when a piece of the organ is left behind in the uterus, or when it takes longer than an hour to deliver. This can cause postpartum bleeding and infection. Your care provider will carefully check the delivered placenta for any missing pieces.

In general, risk factors for placenta issues include smoking, diabetes, being younger than 20 or older than 35 at time of pregnancy, expecting multiples (twins or triplets), chronic high blood pressure, and being either underweight or obese.

What happens to my placenta after I deliver it?

In the US, the placenta is normally disposed of like any other biological waste. If you’d like to see it after you have your baby, ask your doctor or midwife for a “tour” of your placenta.

It is becoming more common in the US for people to save their placenta for many different reasons. Some people want to plant it under a special tree in the garden. Other people want to have a “print” of it made, turning the organ into a piece of art. Still others eat their placenta, which they believe can prevent postpartum depression and increase milk production. Many, many cultures around the world hold deep beliefs about the placenta and how it should be treated. One particular favorite of mine is found in Hawaii, where they believe that it is a part of the baby, and it is traditionally buried under a tree that can grow alongside the child. 

If you’d like to keep your placenta for any reason, just let your care provider know! Usually, you have to sign some paperwork to do so. Do keep in mind that if you’re planning on preparing it to eat, you should follow food handling guidelines and bring a cooler full of ice to the hospital!

Overall, the placenta is a beautiful organ. It exists just to keep your baby safe and healthy, and when that job is done it leaves your body. Do you remember anything interesting about your placenta?

Do you want to learn more about your body and how it adapts to pregnancy and birth? Contact us about Childbirth Education!

Anna Sylvester

pronouns: she/her/hers

About the Author:

Anna fell headfirst into birth work in the winter of 2017, after selling a spinning wheel (and a spinning lesson!) to a local birth doula. She was fascinated by the idea of supporting people through such a vulnerable time and had an inkling that she would be good at this sort of job.

Two things have become very clear during Anna’s doula career. First, there is nothing more magical than being a part of a baby’s first moments in the world. And second, a person in labor will always need a smart, creative, dedicated care team to ensure that their needs are met and their voice is heard. Every single birth has surprised her, moved her, and reinforced the passion that she has for birth work and families. 

Anna lives in the South Park Township with Jake, the resident Bad Cat. When she’s not acing her nursing finals, Anna supports her clients in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum; wears many of the Boundless Birth administrative hats; teaches Childbirth and Breastfeeding education to expecting parents; and is a longtime member of a badass feminist knitting circle. Since that fateful spinning wheel sale, she has acquired several more spinning wheels and a loom or three.

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