What Should I Do With a Placenta?

If you don't want to incinerate it, then consider planting it under a tree.

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The placenta from my son's birth has been kicking around the bottom of the freezer for more than five years. Yes, you read that right. When I gave birth to him at home, the midwives asked if I wanted to keep the placenta to plant under a tree and I said yes because it sounded like a nice idea. My husband popped it in a Ziploc bag and over-wrapped it with a grocery bag, but then life got away from us and the thing never got planted.

That is, until this week, when I noticed my landscaper digging a hole to plant a new pine tree. I rushed over to her and asked quietly if it was OK for me to pop a placenta in the ground. Considering that she's met all my children, and none are visibly newborn, this came as a bit of a surprise, but she took it in stride. After all, she is a pretty cool woman who works long days outdoors with an 8-month-old baby on her back, so if anyone could understand, she would.

I went inside to get the placenta, and there ensued a few frantic minutes of me (a) realizing the organ was frozen solid in the Ziploc bag and needed to be thawed under running water in the kitchen sink; (b) trying to explain the significance of the moment to my curious children, who were making retching sounds while sneaking peeks at the umbilical cord and "tree of life" veins; and (c) trying to do it all as fast as possible because I was late for a gym class and it was starting to rain.

Needless to say, the placenta got planted, the landscaper will probably never forget me, and I made it to my class on time. I didn't think about it again until I recounted the story to some childless friends, and their eyeballs nearly popped out of their heads. "You had a PLACENTA?" they shrieked. "What are you even supposed to do with a placenta?" That's when I realized this isn't something people talk about much, and maybe it needs to be addressed. So here's my brief overview of some things you can do with a placenta – but that doesn't necessarily mean you should!

So You Have a Placenta...

The placenta is the organ that nourishes and grows a baby in utero. It includes the bag in which the baby lives and the umbilical cord that provides food and oxygen. It's pretty incredible, and you should be proud that your body produced such a thing. I was always astonished at how large it was, like giving birth to a second mini baby after the "main" one had come out (a.k.a. not fun at all).

In most cases, if you give birth in a hospital, you don't take the placenta home. It's always examined after birth for any missing pieces, as these can cause a postpartum hemorrhage if they've adhered to the uterine wall, but as long as the placenta is intact, it is whisked away from sight and mind and incinerated. That's what happened with my first, and I didn't really care.

With my second child, I started reading more about births and the (many) alternative views there are about placentas. Some mothers choose to engage in placentophagy, or eating one's placenta, usually in the form of capsules that have been filled with dried, powdered placenta. Some blend it into smoothies or boil it to make broth. The idea is that the rich nutrients used to grow the placenta are reingested immediately, improving postpartum recovery.

This is not recommended. In 2017 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement urging mothers not to eat their placentas (even if rabbits and rats do). Not only are there no proven benefits, but there's concern over how it gets processed into capsules and the lack of regulatory oversight. Mother Jones wrote, "There’s no way to know what’s actually inside them, or what goes on during the manufacturing process. That leaves women who consume the pills vulnerable to infection, environmental toxins, and exposure to potentially dangerous levels of hormones."

Alternatively, you can make art with your placenta. The "tree of life" is a magnificent structure of arteries and veins that appears on one side of the placenta. Sometimes it's taken away by doulas after birth to make prints that can be hung on a wall or imprinted on a T-shirt. (Go with infant sizes. I doubt your teen will be interested in that kind of fashion statement.)

Finally, you can plant it. There's a rich tradition of planting placentas, which I've learned about while researching for this article. (Suddenly my tree ordeal doesn't seem nearly as wacky as it did in the moment.) An old article in Mothering informed me that the Maori bury placentas to emphasize a child's connection to the Earth. In Cambodia and Costa Rica, planting the placenta is believed to bring good health to baby and mother, and in Turkey, religious devotion. If a mother tragically dies in childbirth, "the Aymara of Bolivia bury the placenta in a secret place so that the mother's spirit will not return to claim her baby's life" (via Wikipedia). The Nepalese view the placenta as the baby's friend – a beautiful idea.

There's something reassuring about watching a tree grow, knowing it stands atop a piece of my own body and my child's. And if it does have nutrients to impart, I'd rather they go to a lovely white pine than to myself, who feels adequately nourished with homemade food. At the very least, it adds a personal touch to a tree on our property that now will now be viewed forever as my child's special tree. Despite the retching noises at the time, he's now intensely curious about "his tree" and keeps checking on it daily, which shows a delightful sense of personal investment that I hope continues as he grows.

All this is to say, you should know what you want to do with your placenta before you have a baby. Get a plan and stick to it, but don't leave it in the kitchen freezer for five years.