• Wed, May 29 - 11:30 am ET

Are You Gonna Eat That? A Look At Placenta Customs Around The Globe

Placenta Power placenta capsules

Placenta Power placenta capsules

So, you’re going to have a baby. You’ve likely spent hours pouring over baby registries and/or arguing with your partner about future hypothetical parenting conflicts that obviously need to be figured out right now. I mean, do you have any idea how hard it is to find a reasonable Bar Mitzvah space in Manhattan!?

Yes, you’ve picked out nursery furniture and researched the best feeder preschools, but have you made plans for that crucial pregnancy organ, the placenta?

The placenta has been getting a decent amount of play in the news lately, thanks to high profile ladies including Holly Madison and January Jones publicly announcing their plans to ingest theirs via pill. That’s not quite as hardcore as the story Maria Guido tells about the brand new mama who took a big ‘ol bite of the raw, bloody organ minutes after delivery.

But while all this attention on the placenta might sound like news to our sanitized western sensibilities, many cultures have long believed in the power of the placenta, and honored the organ with very specific rituals. Read on for some of the ways afterbirth is regarded and treated around the world. Maybe you’ll get a few ideas!


United States

Though placentophagy - eating the placenta - isn't standard practice in the United States (yet), ingesting afterbirth is becoming far more commonplace.

Until relatively recently, Westerners considered the placenta just another byproduct of the birthing process, and disposed of it as such. But since the 1970s, thanks to the rise of the natural birthing movement, placentophagy is on the up and up. According to the pro-placenta-eating movement, ingesting the organ has tons of positive health benefits, including a decreased risk of postpartum depression, and an increase in lactation.

While it's worth stating that no studies have conclusively proved or disproved the purported effects, a recent UNLV study did state that 96% of the placenta eating participants reported the experience as a positive one. If consumption is the route you've decided on, there's no one way to get it down; the most popular way is to have your placenta encapsulated - basically turned into easy-to-swallow pills. But if the gourmand in you is just itching to get into the kitchen with that locally sourced cut of pure placenta, there are plenty of recipes available. Placenta pate anyone?

United States

If placentophagy is just too much for you to swallow, but you don't think the afterbirth belongs in the medical waste bin, you have options: Feeling crafty? Designer Alex Cross made quite a splash in 2009 when he unveiled his Placenta Teddy Bear, a not-so-cuddly creature that "celebrates the unity of the infant, the mother and the placenta." The Twin Teddy Kit was designed specifically for a design show, but ambitious DIY'ers can follow these simple instructions via Cross: "The placenta must be cut in half and rubbed with sea salt to cure it. After it is dried out, it is treated with an emulsifying mixture of tannin and egg yolk to make it soft and pliable. Then, you sew it into a teddy bear."

A bit too Franken-bear for you? Tree of Life Placenta Services will - among other placenta related offerings - create a placenta print by pressing the fresh and bloody placenta on to a piece of paper. How are these not taking Etsy by storm? But speaking of, one intrepid indie designer offers a placenta pendent, made with "bits of your own dehydrated placenta." So, there's that.

Ukraine

Traditional Ukranians believe that the placenta is linked to a mother's future fertility - but only if it's buried in the right place. Midwives "read" the afterbirth to predict how many more children the mother will have. But the prediction isn't a guarantee; folklore dictates that the placenta must be buried somewhere safe, where it won't be stepped over. If say, the family gets sloppy and accidentally buries it under a doorway, all bets are off, and the woman is left infertile.

Bali

The Balinese practice an extremely specific type of placenta burial. Like the Ukranians and many others, people from Bali believe in burying the afterbirth according to very specific guidelines. But where Ukrainians connect the placenta with the mother's future, Balinese believe that the placenta is actually the baby's twin, and will serve as the child's guardian angel. The new parents have very specific duties; the father cleans the placenta and then hands it over to the mother for burial. Placed in a coconut shell and wrapped in white linen, the placenta is buried in the family's yard - to the right of the house for newborn boys, and to the left for girls.

Korea

Koreans burn the placenta and keep the ashes.

Both Korean and Chinese cultures believe in the healing and medicinal powers of the placenta. In Korea, sick children are given a mixture made their placenta's ashes and water, which is supposed to heal the sick child. And dried placenta is used in traditional Chinese medicine - one of the few cultures where individuals other than the mother or child consume the afterbirth.

Hmong cultures

Traditional Hmong culture dictates that the placenta must be buried inside the family home.

The Hmong people are one of the oldest known civilizations. Today's Hmong mostly live in Northern Lao, Southern China, Northern Thailand, North West Vietnam and Burma, and believe that the placenta is the crucial link between the spirit world and the living world. The Hmong word for placenta also means jacket, and after death, the Hmong believe that a person's soul must travel back to place of their buried placenta. Once the soul collects its placenta jacket, it will be able to travel into the spirit world to meet its ancestors and be reincarnated as a new baby. A soul that's unable to reunite with its placenta is doomed to wander for eternity, naked and alone. That might just be the saddest sentence I've ever written.

I can only hope that no overly ambitious designers read this and get some crazy idea for an actual placenta jacket.

The New Zealand Maori

Another school of thought is that the placenta connects the child to its familial land or tribe. The Maori word for placenta and land is the same; whenua. The Maori's believe that burying the placenta on tribal land establishes a lifelong connection between the child and their ancestral land. The ritual has its origins in the proverb ‘He taonga no te whenua, me hoki ano ki te ,’meaning, ‘what is given by the land should return to the land.’

Today, modern Maori women may give birth in a hospital and live far away from their ancestral land, yet they haven't forsaken the tradition. Either the expectant mother or a close friend makes a special basket for the placenta; once the baby is born, the placenta is placed in the basket and sent home with either a grandparent or the father of the child who will then take it back to the tribal lands for burial.

Image: Wooden placenta bowl, Maori, New Zealand,1890-1925, via ScienceMuseum.org.uk
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