What Can We Do with the Placenta?

QUESTION

Dear Mr. Dad,
My wife is 8 months pregnant. We've done a lot of reading, taken childbirth and parenting classes, and we thought we were ready for anything. Then just the other day, a friend asked what we were planning to do with the baby's placenta. Frankly, the question had never even occurred to me or my wife. But now that we're thinking about it, it seems strange to just throw it out. Do you have any suggestions?

ANSWER

I have to admit that I was in the same boat right before my first child was born. Even though the placenta was her life -- support system for the whole time she was in utero, I'd never given her placenta much though. But it's certainly worth talking about.

After your baby is born, your wife will continue to have mild contractions for anywhere from five minutes to about an hour until the placenta is delivered. The strange thing about this stage of the delivery is that neither you nor your wife will probably even know it's happening -- you'll be much too involved with your new baby and with each other.

Once the placenta is out, however, you need to decide what to do with it. In this country most people never even see it, and those who do just leave it at the hospital (where it will either be destroyed or, more likely, sold to a cosmetics company -- honest). But in many other cultures, the placenta is considered to have a permanent, almost magical bond with the child it nourished in the womb, and disposal is handled with a great deal more reverence. Many actually have special rituals and believe that if the placenta isn't properly buried, the child -- or the parents, or even the entire village -- will suffer some terrible consequences.

In rural Peru, for example, the father is required to go to a far-off location and bury the placenta deep enough so that no animals or people will accidentally discover it. Otherwise, it might become "jealous" of the attention paid to the baby and may take revenge by causing an epidemic.

Some South American Indian cultures believe that a child's life can be influenced by objects that are buried with its placenta. Boys' placentas are frequently buried with a shovel or a pick, and girls' are buried with a loom or a hoe. In the Philippines some bury the placenta with books as a way of ensuring intelligence.

But placentas are not always buried. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs' placentas were wrapped in special containers to keep them from harm. Traditional Vietnamese medicine uses placentas to combat sterility and senility, and in India, touching a placenta is supposed to help a childless woman conceive a healthy baby of her own. In China, some believe that breastfeeding mothers can improve the quality of their milk by drinking a broth made of boiled placenta. This sort of placenta usage isn't limited to non-Western cultures. Even today, in France and other countries, placentas are found in a variety of products including cosmetics and medicines.

Whatever you and your wife decide to do, it's probably best to keep it a secret -- at least from the hospital staff. Some states try to regulate what you can do with a placenta and may even prohibit you from taking it home (although if you really want to, you can probably find a sympathetic nurse who will pack it up in a Tupperware container for you). My oldest's placenta stayed at the hospital, but we stored the younger ones' in the freezer for a year before burying them and planting trees on top.
-- "Mr. Dad"