Every mother knows a placenta goes hand in hand with pregnancy.
Even if you don’t know much about what this amazing organ does, you probably understand it plays a vital role for your baby.
The placenta grows and develops alongside your baby – they’re basically ‘womb mates’.
But do you know what a placenta actually does or just how amazing it really is?
Keep reading to learn more.
What exactly is a placenta?
When you first conceive, the swiftly multiplying cells form your baby and placenta as early as 6-7 days after conception.
The placenta is a disc-shaped organ formed in the uterus during pregnancy.
By the time you give birth, it is roughly the size of a small dinner plate, about 2.5cm thick. It weighs approximately one-sixth of your baby’s weight.
The placenta provides the oxygen and nutrients needed to keep your little one nourished throughout pregnancy.
Maternal blood flows to the uterus and placenta, where the oxygen and nutrients are exchanged.
Baby’s and mother’s blood don’t mix, because each has its own circulatory system.
Amazingly, the umbilical cord carries the oxygen and nutrients from the placenta directly into the baby’s bloodstream. What an amazing organ!
Here are 13 amazing placental facts:
#1: The placenta has a maternal and a fetal side
This amazing organ has two distinct surfaces. The maternal side is attached to the uterine wall. This is where nutrients are exchanged between the mother and the baby. The maternal side is dark red as it contains maternal blood.
The fetal side is shiny and grey in color. It’s shiny because it’s covered by part of the amniotic sac. It’s also where the umbilical cord inserts, usually into the centre of the placenta.
From the cord, blood vessels branch off and insert deeply into the placental tissue to form the ‘tree of life’.
It’s called this because the umbilical cord represents the ‘trunk’, and the blood vessels that branch out look like the roots of the tree – nourishing and sustaining the life within.
#2: The placenta acts as a gland
Have you ever wondered why you can feel incredibly hormonal and not yourself at one month into your pregnancy?
After all, your baby is only the size of a poppy seed. How on earth can this little one already affect how you feel?
During pregnancy the placenta acts as a gland to secrete important hormones necessary for your baby’s growth, as well as prepare your body for breastfeeding.
Some of the hormones are:
- Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). The pregnancy hormone hCG is detected when you pee on the stick and get a positive pregnancy test. It stimulates production of estrogen and progesterone and maintains the uterine lining until around 10-13 weeks, when the placenta takes over and starts to secrete those hormones.
- Estrogen. This hormone increases blood flow and stimulates uterine growth, both necessary to meet the needs of a growing baby. It also stimulates the growth of breast tissue in preparation for breastfeeding.
- Progesterone. It helps to maintain the uterine lining and support a healthy pregnancy. It also helps to keep a hospitable environment for your growing baby.
- Human placental lactogen. This is responsible for speeding up your metabolism. It also ensures more glucose is passed on to your baby; growing a baby takes a lot of energy. This hormone also helps your body prepare for breastfeeding.
#3: The placenta delivers baby’s nutrition
The food you eat doesn’t go directly to your baby. Yes, the idea of eating for two is indeed a myth.
When you eat, your body breaks the food down and the nutrient materials enter your bloodstream.
During pregnancy, the nutrition in your bloodstream is passed, via the placenta and umbilical cord, into baby’s bloodstream. This is why it’s important for mothers-to-be to have a nutritious diet.
Unfortunately, your baby won’t benefit from all of those bowls of ice-cream.
#4: The placenta works incredibly hard exchanging blood
Did you know mother’s blood and baby’s blood don’t mix?
During every minute of your pregnancy, an entire pint (almost 500 ml) of blood is sent to the uterus to exchange nutrients via the placenta.
Even when you’re resting, your placenta is working hard. Perhaps that explains some of the pregnancy fatigue.
#5: The placenta ‘breathes’ for your baby
While your baby’s lungs are developing, your placenta provides 100% of her oxygen needs.
In pregnancy babies don’t use their lungs, as their mother’s blood supply provides all the oxygen they need via the placenta and umbilical cord.
Just as your body provides oxygen to all of your organs and tissues via the bloodstream, it also oxygenate your baby’s blood too.
So when you breathe, you’re breathing for baby too. Even more of a reason to take nice, deep breaths.
It seems there isn’t anything the placenta can’t do!
#6: The placenta is your baby’s disposal system
Not only does the placenta provide your baby with oxygen, it also removes carbon dioxide and other waste products.
Carbon dioxide from the baby is transferred through the cord, out through the placenta and is removed.
Before your blood passes through the placenta, it acts like a kidney, by filtering out harmful toxins which could be potentially dangerous for your little one.
#7: The placenta is part mama and part dad
When a sperm fertilises the egg, cells begin to multiply to form a blastocyst, which then becomes the placenta and baby.
It’s very easy to think of the placenta as one of the mother’s organs, but it’s actually created from both parents.
The process of pregnancy is amazing.
One sperm, plus one egg, and you have everything necessary to grow and nourish a whole new human being.
#8: The placenta provides immunity and infection protection
In some situations, the placenta can help protect the baby from infections while in the womb.
If you have a bacterial infection, the placenta helps protect the baby from it.
However, in some cases of serious viral infections, the placenta might not offer protection.
Before birth, the baby receives antibodies via the placenta. The antibodies help boost the baby’s immune system for the early months of life.
If you’re breastfeeding your little one, she’ll continue to receive antibodies via your breast milk.
#9: The placenta functions without direct control of the nervous system
This incredible organ, developed from just a sperm and an egg, doesn’t contain any nerve cells. That means it isn’t under the direct control of the brain or the spinal cord.
The placenta develops and functions without being connected to your brain. How amazing is that?
#10: The placenta is the only truly disposable organ
Sure, we have some organs we can survive without, but the placenta is the only one that’s disposable.
It’s an organ that develops only in pregnancy, and is designed to be expelled naturally after your bundle of joy is born.
It’s created for single use. Once it has served its purpose it leaves the body.
Every healthy pregnancy develops a new placenta, perfectly paired with a new baby, for nourishment and support.
#11: You can have more than one placenta
If you have a singleton pregnancy (carrying one baby), your body will develop just one placenta. However, it’s possible for more than one placenta to form – for example, if you’re pregnant with twins.
There are various placental malformations which might have the appearance of two placentas, even though you’re pregnant with a single baby.
To find out more about double placentas, read Two Placentas, One Baby – Incredible Facts.
#12: When the placenta leaves, the milk starts
The placenta itself isn’t directly responsible for producing breast milk, but it does play a role.
The placenta produces a hormone that suppresses milk production in pregnancy. Once it has separated from the uterine wall, it triggers the production of prolactin.
Prolactin is the hormone responsible for milk production.
#13: The placenta can become a supplement
Although the jury is still out in the Western birth world, many find placenta encapsulation (placenta pills) very beneficial.
Placenta encapsulation is something many expectant mamas look into as an option, during the postnatal period, to help them through the transition.
The practice of placentophagy (eating the placenta) is on record as far back as the 1500s, in traditional Chinese medicine.
There might not be large scale studies proving the health benefits of placentophagy, but many sources, and mamas, cite benefits such as:
- Balancing of postnatal hormones
- Increase in energy levels
- Replenishment of iron stores
- Reduction of postnatal bleeding
- An increase in milk supply
- More overall satisfaction during the postnatal period.
Occasionally, there can be complications associated with the placenta.
These complications can affect your pregnancy and might involve the need for your health care provider to arrange additional ultrasounds or fetal wellbeing checks.
They could even affect the type of birth you have.
Complications are usually related to where the placenta is attached to the uterus, or how deeply it embeds.
Problems can also arise during the third stage of labour, as the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus.
This condition occurs when the placenta lies too low in the mother’s uterus. It can be ‘low lying’, meaning the edge lies very close to the opening of the cervix, or it can be a true placenta previa which covers part of, or all of, the cervix.
Placenta previa can cause life threatening severe bleeding in pregnancy or birth.
You can read more about placenta previa in BellyBelly’s article here.
This is a serious condition where the placenta embeds abnormally deeply into the wall of the uterus. There are varying degrees of accreta and it’s graded on severity, and the depth at which the placenta attaches.
Problems arise because the placenta can’t detach fully from the uterus. This often results in significant vaginal bleeding, or damage to the uterus or other organs caused while trying to remove it.
Read more on placenta accreta here.
Placental abruption occurs when the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus before birth.
This causes blood to accumulate internally, causing stomach pain, vaginal bleeding and frequent uterine contractions.
Abruption affects both mother and baby, and can be life threatening. It increases the risk of premature birth, emergency c-section and stillbirth.
The cause of placental abruption is unknown, but certain factors increase its occurrence.
Risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- Cocaine use
- Injury to the abdomen.
Read more in Placental Abruption – 13 Facts You Need To Know.
Pregnancy is an amazing process filled with miraculous detail.
The placenta is one part of this wondrous experience.
As you can see, it provides everything your baby needs, and can even provide for some of your postnatal needs too.
Let’s be sure we appreciate all of the incredible things this normally under-appreciated organ does!