This morning’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the US Centers for Disease Control casts a light upon a little-known practice among some “natural” childbirth advocates – the consumption of the placenta by the mother herself.
In this case, a full-term newborn was moved to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit after displaying signs of respiratory distress. The baby tested positive for a specific type of Strep bacteria. After an 11-day treatment with antibiotics, the baby was sent home.
But only 5 days later the baby was taken to the emergency room with “irritability”; the child was immediately admitted to the hospital, where the baby again tested positive for a specific type of Strep bacteria.
At first, doctors were at a loss to explain it. The child’s brain and spinal fluids were clear of the bacterium and the mother’s breastmilk tested negative, too. But then doctors at the hospital where the baby was born, informed them that the mother had specifically requested her placenta. Upon questioning, she acknowledged that she had arranged for a company, which has not been identified, to process her placenta into capsules of dehydrated placental material, which she had been consuming.
The mother was ordered to stop taking the dried placenta capsules, which tested positive for the bacterium and which, doctors believe, colonized the mother. After another round of antibiotic treatment, the baby was sent home.
Do Women Really Eat Their Own Placentas?
Not only do some women consume their own placentas in one form or another, but a few have apparently tried to make it into a family affair.
Believers in placenta consumption, or placentophagy, claim that hormones present in the placenta help speed recovery, reduce or prevent post-partum depression and improve breastmilk production.
Skeptics counter with the fact that such claims about the hormonal benefits are not scientifically proven, and point out that expectant mothers are generally well nourished and would gain no nutritional benefit from consuming their own placentas.
Science has also been skeptical when it comes to the nutritional claims, especially. A 2016 study in Nutrition Research found that human placenta would, when taken according to standard daily dosage levels, only provide a quarter of the daily recommended dose of iron for breastfeeding mothers and only trace amounts of minerals like zinc, copper and selenium.
A study published this year in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health found human placenta to be of no consequence whatsoever when it came to iron levels immediately or even 3 weeks post-partum.
But Is Placentophagy Dangerous?
It appears that most “placenta eating” does not involve raw or even cooked placenta. The vast majority of women who consume their own placentas are having it professionally dried and encapsulated. And that process does appear to have some risks to it.
To kill the bacteria that sickened the newborn, the firm that processed the mother’s placenta should have held it at a certain temperature for at least 2 hours. But it appears, say the scientists who looked into the matter, that something went wrong somewhere. “The placenta encapsulation process does not per se eradicate infectious pathogens,” they write, “thus, placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided.”