Karen Wilmot aka 'The Virtual Midwife' is a midwife, prenatal yoga teacher and founder of The Due Date Club, a private online community for pregnant women. In this series she shares what she calls the 'safety nets' that nature has in place to protect you and your baby in pregnancy. As she says, each day and each symptom is an opportunity to learn what’s happening, what causes it and what you can do to optimise your health.
Here's something I bet you didn't know.
During pregnancy, your body creates a completely new organ, from scratch. It may be small, but the placenta is a mighty organ with many functions to support the growth of your baby.
The word placenta comes from a combination of 2 Greek words meaning "plate" and "flat cake". By the end of pregnancy, that's pretty much the size and shape of a placenta. After your baby is born, it separates from the lining of the placenta and follows the passage of the baby. This is why it's sometimes called "the afterbirth". Its mission is complete, and it is expelled.
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While some societies discard the placenta as biological waste, other cultures have rituals and ceremonies to honor the placenta for its essential role in the baby's life. In China, dried placenta is used in preparations of traditional Chines medicine. Most non-human mammals with a placenta consume the placenta immediately after birth. Eating your placenta is called placentophagy.
The practice of placentophagy has recently become popular in western culture, thanks to celebrities like Kim Kardashian and January Jones. The jury is out on whether it is a recommended practice but let's look at the function of the placenta before deciding if you should bury, incinerate or eat it.
The placenta, like your baby, contains genes from both you and your partner. It only begins to form around 6 to 7 days after conception takes place. By this time, the fertilised egg (now called a blastocyst) implants in the wall of your uterus. The placenta is the first of the fetal organs to develop.
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It's formed by cells that originate from the fetus. Over the course of your pregnancy, the placenta grows from a few cells into a complete organ. Your baby's growth depends on the quality and effectiveness of your placenta, so it has a huge role to play in pregnancy. Your developing baby doesn't eat or breathe and relies solely on you for nutrients and oxygen. The placenta acts as the baby's lungs to supply oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. It also acts as a baby's kidneys to filter waste products out of the bloodstream.
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The placenta acts as an endocrine gland that secretes essential hormones during pregnancy. One of the first hormones produced by the placenta is hCG (human chorionic gonadotrophin). This is the hormone measured by a pee-on-a-stick pregnancy test, indicating a positive pregnancy.
The hormone progesterone supports the lining of the uterus. This provides a healthy environment for the fetus and placenta to grow and develop.
By week 12, the placenta is completely formed and ready to take over nourishment of your baby. Yet it continues to grow throughout pregnancy. The average full-term placenta is 22cm across, about 2,5cm thick and weighs one-sixth of your baby's weight (at term).
The foetal side (the side that attaches to your baby via the umbilical cord) is smooth and dark grey in colour.
The blood vessels spread out over the surface in the pattern of a tree, hence it's often referred to as the "Tree of Life". The maternal side is dark red in color. It's soft and spongy and made up of several segments called "cotyledons" that fit perfectly together like a jigsaw puzzle.
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Five interesting facts about your placenta
1. Blood from both mom and baby pass through the placenta but never mix. At full term, about 600ml of your blood passes through the placenta every minute.
2. Antibodies pass through the placenta to kick start your baby's immune system. This protection lasts for up to 6 months after birth.
3. Stem cells from your baby can cross the placenta and integrate into your organs during pregnancy. Studies show that these cells persist up to 30 years after pregnancy.
4. The placenta prepares your body to breastfeed. It produces a hormone that suppresses the production of breast milk. Once the placenta is delivered, mom's body gets the signal that it's time to produce milk.
5. Research shows that placental cells are similar to cancer cells in their DNA modifications. The placenta might hold the key to curing cancer with its unique ability to grow and infiltrate your body without being attacked by your immune system.
The placenta is truly an incredible organ that deserves the respect it gets in many cultures.
Without it you could not grow your baby or sustain your pregnancy. It truly is the Tree of Life.
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