I first came across the idea of placentophagia, as it is known, during one of my prenatal group sessions at the Family Health and Birth Center near Capitol Hill. While discussing things we might address in our birth plans, one of the midwives brought up the option of keeping our placentas.
“But why?” we all wanted to know.
Indeed, that is the question.
In some cultures, people bury the placenta and later plant a tree over it to honor new life. Other mothers make prints of the placenta, either with its blood or with colored paint, as keepsakes.
Then there are those who believe that the placenta’s nutritional value can benefit the new mother after childbirth.
There is a certain logic to the placenta’s being the perfect postpartum superfood. Throughout pregnancy, the organ transports blood, oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the baby. Some call it “the tree of life,” both for its many branching veins and its life-sustaining force.
The most commonly cited benefit of placenta consumption is that it helps balance hormones and thereby combats postpartum depression. Some also claim that it boosts milk production, helps the uterus contract and replenishes lost nutrients after childbirth. Web sites suggest using it in recipes like any other organ meat, pan frying it or cooking it in lasagna. Some strong-stomached mothers have used it raw in smoothies.
If all this sounds a bit too cannibalistic, there are “placenta encapsulation specialists,” often midwives or doulas, who transform the placenta from its messy postpartum condition into neat, sometimes even flavored, pills. “Mad Men” actress January Jones told People magazine that she began taking placenta pills after giving birth last fall and credits them with helping her to bounce back quickly. “It’s not witchcrafty or anything! I suggest it to all moms,” she told the magazine. “Your placenta gets dehydrated and made into vitamins. It’s something I was very hesitant about,” but she ended up taking the pills daily.
Hospitals consider the placenta biohazardous waste and dispose of it as such unless an arrangement to keep it is worked out beforehand. Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District, for instance, provides a protective container in which to store the placenta if a mother asks. But with 3,500 births a year on average, the hospital has only had only two mothers make such a request in the last year and a half, hospital officials said.
Doula Tabare Depaep is a placenta lady. She works out of her Annapolis kitchen, and said a placenta feels “like a big rump roast.” She doesn’t find it any worse than handling meat. (Depaep is a vegetarian.) “I actually feel warmer toward the placenta because it grew a baby,” she said.