DISCLAIMER: This post contains images of a real placenta and blood.
There are many benefits to placentophagy, or the act of consuming one’s own placenta postpartum. Clinical trials have not been published yet, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a placenta may nourish a mama after birth in many ways. It may replenish iron deficiencies, support or increase milk supply, balance hormones, and ward off PPD (postpartum depression) aka “the baby blues.”
Almost all mammals eat their placentas shortly after birthing them, even vegetarian mammals like goats! The only exception is some primates, who do full lotus births – they carry their babies and placentas around with them until the umbilical cords naturally fall off.
My main reason for wanting to consume my placenta was because I had done it before and had an amazing experience. When my daughter Lizzie was born six years ago, my friend Angela encapsulated her (my? our?) placenta. You can check out her business, Elsie Naturally Placenta Encapsulation. After I gave birth at a birth center, we brought the placenta home in a cooler, and Angela came to pick it up just two hours later, and just two days later had it back to me in a beautiful bottle of pills. At the time, I was too grossed out by the idea to even look at my placenta. I let the midwives put it in the cooler for me and just handed it to Angela. In retrospect I really regret that, but I was certainly able to rectify that this time!
Originally, I had Lizzie’s placenta encapsulated just because all my friends were doing it. I didn’t have any particular other reason other than that I thought it was a neat idea to try. I don’t remember having any immediate, noticeable reaction to the pills. My recovery with her was completely normal, so pills or no pills I’m not sure it would have made a difference for me. It’s not possible to tell since I don’t have an experience to compare where I didn’t take pills. But several weeks later suddenly the pills started making me high. For about 15 minutes after I took one I would feel high like I had smoked weed or was tripping on acid. It was so wonderful and fun. I loved my placenta pills!
Angela told me that only three or four other women have reported to her getting high like that. This time I was tempted to try lotus birth, or try freezing pieces of my placenta to blend in smoothies. There are so many ways to accomplish placentophagy. But of course I was hoping to experience that high again! So I would encapsulate again, and see.
Playing with the Placenta
Our scene opens two days postpartum. It is Valentine’s Day and the girls are at school. My placenta has been in the fridge since 6am on Tuesday morning. I’ve been feeling anxious knowing that I have limited time to complete this project before my placenta goes bad. I could have put it in the freezer, but there is something wrong with our freezer. Everything I put in it gets ice crystals all over it like snow, within several hours, and a frost forms on the drawers and anything glass. I didn’t want to put my placenta into the freezer and risk having it ruined.
It would also be good, I thought, to have placenta pills to take sooner rather than later. But before I got started cutting up my placenta, I wanted to have a little fun with it first.
Originally, I had planned on encapsulating my own placenta a day or two after the birth, and that would be that. I didn’t plan on doing anything artsy with my placenta like making prints or an umbilical cord keepsake. But I did a lot of reading up about the placenta in December and January, so I knew about these things and they lingered in the back of my mind.
After birthing the placenta, or rather, after it fell out of me (!), I lost a lot of blood. The obstetrical definition of hemorrhage is 2 cups of blood. I’m not sure if I lost more than 2 cups because of course we had no way to quantify it. But it was probably at least 2 cups, because I was lying in a pretty big puddle. You can read more about this experience and see all my lovely graphic images in Alice’s birth story.
So I wasn’t feeling well at all, and I knew that my placenta could help me. I ended up eating two cotyledons off of it to stop the possible hemorrhage. I really think they helped. I had known about this prior to labor, but hadn’t expected to use this knowledge. When I had to, I suddenly had a whole new reason to love my placenta.
I felt a gratitude for my placenta that I hadn’t expected to feel. Not only had it nourished my baby for nine months in the womb, but it had quite possibly just saved my life. I thought the placenta was cool before, but now a whole new level of placental appreciation surfaced in my mind. I knew then that if I just cut up my placenta without making some prints, I would regret it. Making prints became my way of expressing gratitude for what my placenta had done for me and my baby, and what it would continue to do for me postpartum.
So on day one I went on Youtube and did a search for “how to make placenta prints.” Less than 30 seconds into the video, I was sure I recognized Angela’s voice. Sure enough, it is her video, from six years ago! I sent my husband José out to get watercolor paper right away. I was thrilled when he found some beautiful, extra large, 140lb paper for $10 at Michaels.
I made three prints and was ecstatic with them every time. We ended up using a rolling pin to carefully stamp the paper the second and third time and we didn’t have any mess ups. I really love the way they all came out, but I think my favorite is the first one, with the little clot in the middle.
I kind of wish I made like ten of these instead of just three! Next time I will make a lot more. Stamping these prints was a lot more fun than I expected and I just adore them. José and I may keep all three or see if Alice’s grandparents want to keep one.
We are still debating if we should bring these to an office supply store to have them laminated, or try to cut the paper around them and put them in shadow boxes. If I had used 8×10 paper, I would have been able to put them in my own home laminator, but we decided to be fancy and get the extra-large paper, so we’ll have to bring them to a shop if we decide to laminate. I can’t wait to see the look on the clerk’s face when they see what we’re laminating 😛
Now that we’d done some prints, I asked José to take some pictures of the placenta before I cut it up. I really did not want to regret not getting to do it all with my placenta! He took seven pictures of it, and then I was satisfied enough to move on.
The placenta is quite a marvel, isn’t it? It is the only organ that grows inside of another organ. “It transfers oxygen and nutrients from mother to baby and returns carbon dioxide and waste products in the reverse direction, thereby acting as the baby’s lungs, kidneys, and digestive tracts all at the same time throughout pregnancy.” (Life’s Vital Link, p. 7). It acts as a blood barrier between the mother’s blood and the baby’s blood, ensuring that throughout the oxygen and nutrient transfers, incompatible blood types are never mixed.
One-third of the baby’s blood is still in the placenta at delivery. This is the biggest reason why it is akin to amputation to sever the cord before it stops pulsing. The baby needs this blood to combat physiological (not pathological) jaundice, and quite simply he needs it to live. Cutting the cord before the placenta is even born is a practice that began when doctors thought it would prevent jaundice to reduce babies’ blood volume (!) “however they neglected to weigh the consequences of this intervention, as denying newborns their full supply of cord blood can result in newborn anemia and a cascade of other conditions related to an inadequate supply of blood.”
Unsevered placentas have been observed to be pulsating during nursing even at 5 days postpartum! Even when the cord is by then dry and brittle. Wow. If this is not evidence that there is still some important connection between baby and placenta, then I don’t know what is. (From Placenta, the Forgotten Chakra, by Robin Lim) (p.49 and p. 114)
Even though I was pretty grossed out, I really enjoyed playing with my placenta with my own hands. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m so glad I didn’t miss out.
Umbilical Cord Keepsake
Now it was time to stop fooling around and get down to the business of encapsulation. First, I needed to cut off the umbilical cord.
Six years ago, Angela dried out Lizzie’s cord for me into the shape of a heart.
but the more research I did, the more options I came across. In a book that my friend Bubbles lent me, I learned about dreamcatchers.
When I read this I really did not think I wanted to do it, but then I realized that Bubbles would be the perfect person to craft such a keepsake for me and Alice. It couldn’t not be done.
Bubbles made a beautiful mobile as a housewarming for us years ago. I trust her and can’t wait to see what she comes up with for this special project.
Bubbles is going to have to get really creative with the tiny circle I fashioned from the bit of cord. Alice’s cord was just so short. And it really shrunk down after it dehydrated.
I was imagining that we’d get a dreamcatcher that looked something like this:
But honestly in the teeny tiny circle that I made Bubbles will probably only be able to hang one teeny tiny gemstone! We will see what she comes up with…
Now it was time to cut it up…
At this point I decided to cut the strips smaller, so José scored them with a razor blade and I cut through them the rest of the way with scissors. I took before and after pictures.
At this point I put the cover on, plugged in the dehydrator, set it to 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and walked away. I cleaned up, and then decided just to double check the temperature with Angela. I hadn’t researched it and honestly hadn’t given it much thought. Well I am so glad I double checked, because it turns out that 125 would have been the perfect temperature to grow bacteria. Angela advised me to use the “meat safe” temperature of 165. My dehydrator only goes up to 160, so I cranked it all the way up.
Eight hours later I opened the dehydrator and completely freaked out. I know Angela had said that it was impossible to over dehydrate, but my pieces were completely black. Is this what they were supposed to look like?
It was late so I popped them off the trays, into a glass container, and into the fridge to finish with tomorrow. Then I googled some pictures of raw dehydrated placenta, and was relieved to see that they looked just like mine.
Phew! That taken care of, I was able to sleep soundly that night. Well, as soundly as one can sleep with a two day old newborn.
The next day it was time to pull out the dehydrated pieces, my Vitamix, and my capsule filler, and make me some placenta pills!
I had José stop recording at this point so I could take an up-close shot of the placenta powder.
It looked good, so I stopped grinding and started filling.
Birth High, Baby Low
I just want to stop and comment here about the end of this video. This was day three postpartum, the day after Valentine’s Day, and my birth high had worn off. I didn’t recognize it at first, but we can’t expect excessive highs won’t crash into a low.
Suddenly I started to get that feeling like something wasn’t quite right. I was irritable with my family, so irritable that they commented on it and weren’t very happy with me. And the thing is, they weren’t being any more annoying than they usually are ;P They were their usual lovable selves. But I had this crazy expectation I think, subconsciously, that post-birth they would suddenly be perfect little helpers, and that’s obviously not how reality played out. José has been great, he really has been, but there are just certain things he can’t/doesn’t do, like laundry and cleaning bathrooms. I felt anxious about these things and ended up pushing myself and doing four loads of laundry on day two and two loads on day three, which really exhausted me. We had so many things full of blood and baby pee and poop and leaking breastmilk, the task just couldn’t wait. Mia and Lizzie, rather than my imagined transformation into Mommy’s little helpers, were raucous and careless around their baby sister, and still had to be nagged incessantly to do their own ordinary chores. (To their credit, they are getting better at being careful around baby, it’s just taking some time).
As I sat in a postpartum herbal bath, I reflected.
You’d think that becoming conscious of my irritation would be enough to set it aside, but in the moment it’s so much easier to snap than to chill. José thinks it has everything to do with my crashing hormones. While I love that he is automatically giving me the benefit of the doubt, I personally feel that I ought to take more responsibility for my own behavior. I think that my expectations have been too high, of my own self and of my family. I have not been patient with them, with my own healing, or with my own drastic lifestyle shift, because I have had to use up all of my patience on the baby.
I am used to being able to run all over the house cleaning and picking up after other people. I haven’t been able to do all the things I normally do because I’ve been tied down nursing, changing diapers, and dealing with a contracting uterus and painful engorgement, and thrush! All of the piles of untidiness around the house don’t drive me any less crazy now than they did pre-baby, and now I can’t always attend to them.
This may sound stupidly obvious – of course things are going to change. But knowing that things will change and then actually living out those changes, well, those are two different things.
Now the question is, will my placenta pills help with this? Will they be, quite literally, the chill pills I clearly need to take?
Maybe. Placenta pills are thought to balance out-of-whack hormones, and be a pick-me-up for those baby blues. On Saturday night, when I lost this entire blog post I had spent hours over three days typing up and piecing together, I cried for hours. At first I was just crying because I had lost so much heartfelt work. But then I was crying for nothing, and for everything. I felt bad about everything. José hadn’t even wanted to have a baby, or so he said, and now he was sacrificing so much for us. Was this baby all for me? Suddenly nothing felt right except the delicious little baby head under my nose and her warm little body pressed up against my breasts.
José held me until I cried myself out and eventually fell asleep.
I ended up yielding 197 pills total. A normal yield I had thought was more like 80-120. So at first I thought 197 was a lot, but then I remembered that I encapsulated raw.
So there are two methods of encapsulation – raw and Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the TCM method, the placenta is cooked and shrinks down to about a third of its size. The purpose of this is for chi to go back into the placenta via warmth. But I chose the raw method, because I wanted to encapsulate more blood for my iron deficiency. So my placenta did not shrink, and I also did not even wash the blood off the outside of it, so part of the volume of my yield was also extra blood. Placentas can and do yield over 200 pills, and raw will always yield more than TCM. So 197 is not an unusual number.
I’ve taken eight so far, and so far I feel alright. I was careful not to take them at first because I was engorged when my milk came in and I know that placenta pills can make that problem a whole lot worse. I am really paranoid about getting mastitis. I had a free birth of course so I don’t have an OB or a midwife to go to to prescribe me antibiotics. I haven’t been to see my doctor since the new fiscal year started in October, so I’d have to pay a co-pay and I’d just really like to avoid that if possible. Not to mention that antibiotics would completely devastate my gut flora and Alice’s newborn gut flora too. Getting mastitis to me would feel like a tragedy.
We will see moving forward how I feel continuing to take these pills. Some women have reported that their milk supply got crazy intense and they had to stop taking them. Some have said that they suddenly got depressed after taking their pills, and were fine when they didn’t take them. I know what my personal experience was taking them last time, but that was six years ago. I was a different mama then, with a different baby.
I told Angela that I can see why people hire her to do this. It is fascinating, but also extremely gross. Not everyone wants to play with a bloody mess! Also, pushing myself to get into the kitchen and do all this work postpartum was probably not the greatest.
Would I do it again? Hell yes!
I will report back here in a few weeks how things are going, what we end up doing with the prints, and how our dreamcatcher turns out.
Have you encapsulated your placenta? Made prints? Played with placentophagy? Let me know in the comments and let me know if you have any questions about this process. I am always happy to discuss this and anything and everything diy birth!
Much love for now ❤