Back in 2008, after I had birthed my 4th baby, the midwives asked me what I would like to do with my placenta? To be completely honest, it was not something I had thought about. It had just disappeared after the other births and I didn’t pay much attention to it. That said, if I’m being honest, I have all my children’s umbilical cords, clamps and pregnancy tests stored away. So, I’m not averse to human tissue!
In recent years, more and more people have become aware of placental encapsulation (the birthing parent ingesting their placenta after birth in capsule/tincture/raw form). In my private consultations, I ask every client if they are taking placenta capsules or considering it? People’s reaction to this vary – some are horrified, and others are very interested. Mostly, in my experience, the interested ones are planning natural births or have had previous experience of postnatal depression or low milk supply and hope that placental encapsulation might provide them with a better experience this time around.
The ‘benefits’ of placental encapsulation described on websites, which are usually very visually pretty, include improved mood, more energy, increased milk supply and less hair loss. However, what is the other side of the coin? I am concerned that mothers are not being informed of potential risks.
The industry is unregulated in Ireland and is being heavily marketed towards pregnant bloggers and influencers, who promote the practice in return for free encapsulation or placental art services. A mother-to-be recently said to me, that she felt it was fear-based marketing aimed at a population who are willing to spend money. The message was if you do this, you won’t get postnatal depression and you’ll have a great milk supply, who wouldn’t jump at this opportunity?
Some parents think this is all they need to do, but we need to look at the fuller picture. Milk supply is driven by milk removal by a baby or pump in addition to hormonal balance. As far as post-natal depression goes, usually it is support and help in the home after birth that mainly prevents women from developing the condition. However, I fully understand how attractive a simple solution to avoid all this can sound.
The basic physiology of the hormone called progesterone is that it soars at very high levels during pregnancy. Once the placenta is delivered, after the baby is born, progesterone levels drop rapidly. This is the trigger for the milk to “come in”. If a piece of placental tissue remains in the womb, it can delay the arrival of a copious milk supply. If progesterone is still circulating around the mother’s body, it could also potentially cause problems.
The majority of IBCLCs I have spoken to have huge concerns about the potential of further reduced milk supplies in women with existing risk factors for low milk supply. Risk factors, that we know of, include hormonal issues such as thyroid imbalances, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), couples requiring fertility assistance to become pregnant and those with a history of recurrent miscarriage. There are potentially many more that we don’t know about yet.
There is also a potential risk of infection which is hugely concerning, particularly as there currently isn’t any independent regulating authority. It is for this reason The Northern Ireland Milk Bank does not accept breastmilk donations from those mothers who have consumed placenta tablets.
We know, from the use of the oral contraceptive pill and hormonal IUD, that some women are very sensitive to progesterone. Could this apply to lactation too? If a mother has hormonal imbalances, we need to be very careful about using anything which could potentially reduce her milk supply further. I have seen this happen with many clients over the years. I’ve also observed mothers who have too much milk months after consuming one capsule. Also some mothers complain of headaches after ingestion. So truthfully, we have no idea what the effects of placental encapsulation are and how extensive they can be. What we do know is that there are risks involved in placental encapsulation and most parents are not made aware of these at the outset.
In a recent poll on my Instagram stories I asked my audience the following question:
If you had your placenta encapsulated, were you informed of potential risks by the encapsulator?
Out of 110 responses, 93% said No and 7% said Yes.
I have had many conversations with colleagues about placental encapsulation. Most of them have concerns. Lisa Marasco IBCLC is the author of Making More Milk : The Breastfeeding Guide to Increasing Your Milk Production (the much anticipated 2nd edition is due for release later this year). She told me that her “current position is that I don’t recommend the practice at this time, not until we have more definitive information. The stories of effects on milk production seem to go both ways and this needs to be sorted out; until then, I don’t think it’s worth the risk. At the least, parents should be informed of the possibility of negative effects so that they are alert for any problems.”
How Should We Proceed in Ireland?
- Placental encapsulators should provide an unbiased account of the risks and benefits to parents who are considering placental encapsulation before seeking consent.
- Independent spot tests of placental encapsulators premises need to be carried out.
- Hospitals need to audit this practice.
We should be documenting rates and cases of complications. Mothers who present with low milk supply or with babies who have unexplained sepsis should be asked if they are taking placental capsules, as some tragedies have been documented.
If this is a safe practice, then we need to put adequate checks in place to ensure that the health and wellbeing of mother and child is protected in each circumstance. If it is something you are considering, please do some proper research first to satisfy yourself that by choosing this option you won’t be putting yourself and your baby at a disadvantage. Talk to your medical team too. Find out all you can so that you can make an informed decision for the well-being of yourself and your baby.
Back in 2008 after my son was born, what were my options?
1) Let the birth attendants dispose of the placenta.
2) Donate it to search and rescue for training dogs.
3) Bury it in the garden and plant a tree.
If you would like to learn more about breastfeeding, I will be holding my antenatal breastfeeding prep class in Dublin on Saturday morning, the 11th of May. Book your place here.
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More information about placental encapsulation risks.