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What is the placenta?

4-minute read

The placenta is crucial to keeping your baby alive and well during pregnancy. It is an organ attached to the lining of the womb that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby.

About the placenta

The placenta is a large organ that develops during pregnancy. It is attached to the wall of the uterus, usually at the top or side. The umbilical cord connects the placenta to your baby.

Blood from the mother passes through the placenta, filtering oxygen, glucose and other nutrients to your baby via the umbilical cord. The placenta also filters out substances that could be harmful to your baby and removes carbon dioxide and waste products from your baby’s blood.

The placenta produces a number of hormones that are needed during pregnancy, such as lactogen, oestrogen and progesterone. It keeps the mother’s blood separate from the baby’s blood to protect the baby against infections. Towards the end of the pregnancy, the placenta passes on antibodies to protect the baby after birth.

Alcohol, nicotine and other drugs and medicines can cross the placenta and damage your baby.

What happens to the placenta during pregnancy?

Normal position of the placenta during pregnancy

The placenta often develops low in the womb but moves to the side or up as the womb stretches. The position of the placenta will be checked at your 18-week ultrasound.

The placenta is expelled from your body after the birth, usually about 5 to 30 minutes after your baby is born. This is called the third stage of labour.

After the baby is born you will continue to have mild contractions. You will have to give one more push to deliver the placenta. Sometimes your abdomen will be massaged or you will be given an injection of oxytocin and the umbilical cord will be gently pulled to help deliver the placenta.

If you have a caesarean section, the doctor will remove the placenta at the same time.

It is important that the whole placenta comes out after pregnancy. If any fragments of the placenta stay inside, they will have to be surgically removed to prevent bleeding and infection.

How to keep your placenta healthy

It is important to visit your healthcare provider regularly during pregnancy to check for any problems with your placenta.

Tell your doctor if you have had problems with the placenta in a previous pregnancy, or if you have had any surgery to your womb.

Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or take illegal drugs during pregnancy because this increases the likelihood you will have problems with the placenta. Always consult your doctor before you take any medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, natural therapies and supplements, while you are pregnant.

Speak with your doctor or midwife if you have any concerns, or if you experience:

  • severe abdominal or back pain
  • vaginal bleeding
  • contractions
  • any trauma to your abdomen, for example from a fall or car accident

Placenta complications

Problems with the placenta can potentially be dangerous for both mother and baby:

  • Placenta accreta: When the placenta grows too deeply into the wall of the uterus. This can lead to massive blood loss during or after delivery and can be life-threatening.
  • Placental abruption: When the placenta peels away from the wall of the womb before delivery. This can cause bleeding and will mean your baby may not be getting all the nutrients they need. In some cases, an early delivery may be needed.
  • Placenta praevia: When the placenta partially or totally covers the cervix, the opening through which the baby will come out. This condition is more common early in pregnancy and often resolves as the placenta moves higher in the uterus as the uterus grows. If the placenta is still covering the cervix close to the time of delivery, a caesarean section will be necessary.
  • Placental insufficiency: When the placenta doesn’t work properly during pregnancy, depriving the baby of oxygen and nutrients. This can affect the growth of the baby.
  • Retained placenta: The placenta may not come out after the birth because it is blocked by the cervix or it is still attached to the uterus. This can cause severe infection or blood loss, and can be life-threatening.

Options for the placenta after the birth

In some cultures, families bury the placenta in a special place.

There is also a rare practice, known as placentophagy, in which women cook and eat the placenta. Some commercial service providers will offer to turn your placenta into capsules for you to swallow.

However, these practices should be treated with caution since there is no regulation in Australia either of these products or the providers of placenta pills.

Recent research shows there are no known health benefits from eating the placenta, but there may be a risk of infection from poor production standards.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2020

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