You might have read or seen a news piece on the "growing trend" of women encapsulating and consuming their placenta after they've given birth. You might even be someone who has had their placenta encapsulated by a doula or placenta specialist in your own community. Or, you may be coming to this article as an expecting parent who has no idea what the heck this business with the placenta is about.
If you have heard of or read about doing something with the placenta after birth, you have probably heard the same list of potential benefits and hopeful outcomes of placentophagy that have made their way around the internet. We hear them from news anchors and new parents alike, from doulas and childbirth educators, and even some midwives and obstetricians. Everyone cites the same anecdotal evidence that birthing people choose to encapsulate or otherwise consume their placentas for one or more of the reasons below. The spiel usually goes something like:
1) The placenta is a very unique organ that is automatically consumed by almost every other land mammal alive. There must be a reason. Some people think it's for survival; when a predator comes lurking, they won't be able to smell blood and amniotic fluid of prey if the birthing animal eats the placenta and licks the membranes off the new baby. Other people believe that animals instinctively know the placenta is a safe source of nutrients, making it an obvious choice for a nutrient-dense post-birth meal. A related pro-column argument is "It's made by you, for you. Don't let it go to waste!"
2) The placenta is a blood-rich organ, chock-full of iron essential for a healthy body. This is especially true in the context of birth, where you lose a good amount of blood volume within a very short period of time. Placenta capsules might even be able to replace the iron supplement that your doctor has prescribed.
3) The placenta contains vital hormones that increase milk production, speed up healing, & may help balance mood in the postpartum period. The most important hormone it contains is the almighty Oxytocin, the "love hormone." Oxytocin (along with multiple other factors) is what causes contracting in the uterus during labor and after birth. You may be wondering why you'd want to continue contracting after birth has already occurred: because this is how the uterus shrinks back down to pre-pregnancy size and you heal up! Oxytocin also helps increase milk supply, so win-win on the hormone front.
4) AVOID POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION. A description is rarely given here because the all-caps command to avoid depression and mood disorders in the months following birth are apparently all you need to read as a potential consumer. I'll add here that the general thought process amongst birth workers who are proponents of placenta encapsulation is that the post-birth body dips in hormone production riiiiight when you most need it to be stable and that by supplementing with the hormone-filled placenta, you can miss out on the dip or possibly feel the highs and lows less intensely.
Though I myself have given some of these reasons to potential clients when asked why people encapsulate placentas, none of the above are reasons I personally chose to start offering placenta services to my client families. No matter how convincing these arguments may sound, I do not believe that these potential benefits are the true reason most pregnant who are choosing this path decide to do so.
Let me say here, this is not an article meant to further the ongoing debate about the safety and benefits of placenta consumption in the postpartum period. There is research being done currently and hopefully, with enough data and time, the answers to those concerns will be met for those who believe using medical research for decision-making to be crucially important. In the meantime, I'd like to take a moment to soften around the topic with what I see as the underlying reasons that placenta encapsulation has become a trendy move. My hope in this piece is that people on both sides of the placenta consumption line gain perspective on the topic and understanding toward birthing people who make this decision that some find "weird" or "too hippie for me" or "gross."
I've been supporting expecting and new parents for many years at this point. You can imagine, as in any industry, I began to see recurring themes between my work with one family and the next. As a doula, I can easily recognize at this point that almost every parent in the world wants nothing more than to do right by their child. Sometimes, because we're human and our perspective is driven by our own individual experiences, we see "right" differently than other people. But I can honestly say that the emotions and goals I identify underneath the spoken words of a new parent always lead back to that same intention: "I want to give my baby the best." "I want to do what is right for my baby." It's a lovely, pure sentiment that I wish all parents could recognize in other parents around them.
The problem I see, though, is that most parents working within the modern Western framework of parenthood, especially those here in the U.S., have no ever-living clue what's right for their babies. And it's not because they haven't read enough books or articles online. It's not because they haven't asked their friends with kids enough questions. It comes down to adults not feeling like they have enough knowledge, understanding, wisdom, or rights to make decisions around bringing new life into the world. Parents living in modern societies have most likely spent the entirety of pregnancy shutting off their inner voices of instinct because they are overrun by authority figures telling them plainly what is right or wrong, safe or harmful. Medical professionals are not free from bias, yet wield great power in the words they not-so-carefully choose. This is true too of the countless mommy blogs and parenting magazine articles chock full of black and white language aimed pointedly at pregnant people. "You must not eat lunch meat." "No sushi for nine months." "Smoking, drinking, running, horseback riding, or telling anyone you're pregnant before the second trimester are all off limits too!"
The intention at the core of these types of societal rules around pregnancy are positive in nature; people want to see pregnant women thrive, babies be born healthily, and the human species live on. Yet, all this telling-women-and-families-what-to-do-business actually creates a society full of people who feel incapable. Incapable of making decisions, incapable of seeing that each family's path is different than the next...incapable of building and maintaining a family that embodies the values of the individuals who created it. Most parents are confused and overwhelmed after a lifetime full of societal forces tugging at their seams, pulling them in multiple directions at once, ultimately telling people what to do instead of guiding them to learn what they need to do, for their lives, their families.
This article is continued in Part 2. Read here!
Amanda Cagle is the founder and owner of Your Birth Team. She is an active doula and educator in and around Orange County, CA. For more information on her encapsulation services or to schedule your support service, click here.