After this story aired last week on a local TV station about the practice of placenta encapsulation, I watched the comments roll in on the piece itself and on posts to social media of the piece. While the reporter herself did an excellent job on putting it all together, and some interesting claims were made by the women interviewed for the story, I felt compelled to take a step back and look at it from a very pragmatic perspective. We are always talking about informed decision making in classes, and to do this, it’s very, very important to weigh out the benefits versus the risks. So, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s not something I did after the birth of either child, and I set out to do enough digging of my own to flesh out a good pro and con list.
So, for potential benefits:
- Reduces postpartum depression
- Helps even out postpartum hormones, allowing for less night sweats, etc.
- Decreases anemia
- Improves milk supply
- As well as others, depending on who you ask
The evidence on these benefits is, sadly, kind of thin. However, unlike what was asserted in the news clip (and in the comment section), a tiny number of studies do exist, as explained and quoted in this great blog post. And, yes, they happen to be kind of old. One, from 1954, did try to determine if ingesting placenta will help increase a mother’s milk supply. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that some tiny, positive links have been shown.
And, for potential risks:
- The risk of exposure to blood-borne pathogens
- Any risk that comes from incorrect food preparation
And….that’s it. That’s all I can find. If you ingest placenta from a mother who is HIV positive, or has Hepatitis, then you are putting yourself at risk. And, just like any other kind of organ meat, it’s wise to store it in a refrigerator or freezer and prepare it in a clean environment.
OK then. It would seem, even if there’s only reported benefits with little as far as scientific evidence to back it up, they still outweigh the tiny, tiny risks of consuming your own placenta.
I asked Amber Morrisey, Canadian doula, educator, and student midwife (and more!), and author of a DIY Manual on placenta encapsulation, for her wisdom, since she has thought about it much, much more than I have.
To address reasons for consuming placenta, she told me,
Placenta Encapsulation is meant to be a preventative measure, in hopes that taking it as medicine soon after birth would reduce the chances of getting postpartum depression and increasing wellness all around after birth. Placenta pills are an alternative hormone therapy essentially, and are not meant to replace Western Medicine in the case of any illness. Women are fully informed of this prior to getting their placenta turned into capsules, and sign a waiver to indicate they understand that placenta remedies do not replace medical health care. The traditional medicine can be taken together with Western Medicine if desired.
Which, really, sounds completely logical. It seems pretty fair that a women might want to do something to improve her chances of having a positive postpartum, rather than not do something. If ingesting her placenta is what she’s up to doing, well, ok then.
And, to address the “risks” of consuming placenta, she added:
A woman who isn’t carrying HIV or other blood borne pathogens may be interested in consuming their placenta some how after birth. Routine care in pregnancy would have both the mother and care provider aware of possible indications where ingestion wouldn’t be safe. Most hospitals allow women to take home their placenta, as long as it doesn’t contain blood borne pathogens, greatly reducing any potential risk.
So, opinion moment. The risks of ingesting your placenta, as presented in the story and elsewhere, do strike me as overwrought. A mother knows her infection status. And, as Morrisey states, a hospital would need to make sure there was no risk of HIV or any other disease transmission when allowing a mom to keep her placenta. The idea that a mom could put herself at risk of disease by consuming something that came from her? Not very logical.
Now, look, just like most everything we touch on, I’m not saying every family has to do things a specific way (Well, except car seats. At BabyLove we DO think everyone needs to use them correctly, end of story.). But rather than just dismiss something that we don’t understand fully, if no harm can come from the practice, then there’s no need to condemn it. When Brittany was studying for her Lamaze exam, we had an interesting discussion about different things educators and doulas teach families. Not everything can always be evidence-based. There are stretches that we encourage mothers to try, different comfort measures that can help with leg cramps, and a few other things that can come up (putting soap under the mattress, anyone?) that, if you think about it, might not be 100% scientifically proven, but they do help some women with few, if any risks.
Finally, it’s important for childbirth educators to address this issue in a respectful manner. There are certainly some cultural aspects to the practice that might not make sense to everyone. What also struck me after reading through hundreds of comments on the subject, is that many of the arguments against placentophagy could easily be arguments that have been made against breastfeeding in the past. But, we know more now about how vital breastfeeding is, both to a new baby and a new mom, and it’s certainly possible that in 30 years we’ll be in the position to discuss placentas with more information. Until then, we need to listen to and respect mothers who choose the ingest their placentas, and make sure they are making an informed decision on how to do so safely, if that’s what they want to do.
Comments? Questions? Leave them below!