The placenta is a remarkable organ (yes, really!) that serves to provide oxygen and nutrients to your developing baby. As the clump of cells that becomes the foetus implants in your womb and develops, so begins the growth of this incredible organ, connecting mother and baby through the umbilical cord. 

The placenta is crucial to the process of pregnancy. Here we explain everything you need to know – from the role of the placenta to explaining potential problems, such as placenta praevia. We even dip our toes into the growing trend of eating placenta after your baby is born!

What is a placenta?

Is the placenta really an organ? Yes! The placenta is an organ which grows in the uterus throughout the pregnancy. The function of the placenta is to deliver nutrients and oxygen from the mother to the baby, and remove waste products too. It is also responsible for hormone production necessary for a healthy pregnancy. It’s a large structure, usually weighing around 1.5lb at the time of birth.

One side of the placenta attaches to the uterine wall, usually at the top, back, side or front. From the other side comes the umbilical cord that attaches to the infant. 

The placenta is also known as the ‘after birth’ as it is delivered following the baby.

When does the placenta form?

The placenta begins developing at the point of conception and is considered fully mature at around 34 weeks. The placenta takes time to develop, like the growing embryo. As such, until the placenta is ready to do its job, the process of the embryo’s growth is determined by hormones released from the corpus luteum, a collection of cells that forms each time you ovulate.

When does the placenta take over?

By the end of the first trimester (12 weeks), the placenta is ready to take over the job of pregnancy-supporting hormone production and providing nutrition for the growing foetus. 

Many people, with a small amount of knowledge, frantically search for answers to ‘when does the placenta take over and morning sickness stop?’ 

You’re on the right lines with your understanding about the relationship between the corpus luteum and morning sickness. While the corpus luteum is producing the hormones needed for the embryo to develop, you are more likely to feel tired and nauseous. It doesn’t affect everyone during pregnancy, but morning sickness can be debilitating and far from pleasant. 

Follow Justine Hankin’s Tips for Morning Sickness

If you’re suffering with morning sickness, you will desperately want to know what week of pregnancy the placenta takes over. This will have happened by 12 weeks but may happen as early as eight weeks. For most women, the placenta takes over at 10 weeks. 

12 weeks marks the beginning of the second trimester, and with the placenta taking over, many people now feel more energised and less nauseous. 

Types of placenta

Various factors affect the health and structure of the placenta, from twin pregnancies to maternal health. 

The two most common problems are placenta praevia and placental abruption. 

  • What is placenta praevia? Unusually, the placenta forms at the bottom of the uterus, covering the cervix. It can resolve itself as the pregnancy develops. However, it can cause vaginal bleeding and it varies in severity. You will need careful management and may require a C-section for delivery.
  • What happens if a placenta ruptures? In rare cases, the placenta begins to detach from the uterus before the baby has been delivered. This is called placental abruption and can be dangerous for both mum and baby.
  • What is anterior placenta? This is when the placenta grows on the front wall of the uterus and is quite normal. However, you may find it harder to feel your baby’s movements.

Can your placenta move?

With concerns about placenta praevia, it’s worth being aware that your placenta can move during the pregnancy. It commonly moves up and away from the cervix in time for birth. 

Twin pregnancy placentas

If you’ve got a twin pregnancy, you may have even more questions about the placenta. 

The big question is do twins share a placenta? Non-identical twins (fraternal) will have their own placentas. The majority of identical twins share placentas. Whether they share a placenta and have their own distinct sacs depends on the type of identical twin, and when the blastocyst separation occurred. 

There are some problems which can arise from sharing a placenta, such as twin to twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), so you should be closely monitored throughout your pregnancy.

What happens to the placenta after birth?

Once your baby is delivered, it’s time for the placenta to be delivered. If you’ve had a vaginal birth, this is the third stage of labour. Contractions continue (or restart), possibly assisted by being given oxytocin, and you give birth to the placenta. If you have a C-section, the placenta is removed as part of the procedure.

It’s important that the placenta is examined to check it’s complete as retained placenta can cause problems.

The placenta is disposed of, or in some cultures you may wish to keep the placenta for burial. Alternatively, there is a growing trend for eating the placenta.

Can you eat placenta?

You can, if you wish, eat your placenta and several celebrity mums have done this, such as Kourtney Kardashian. However, it’s actually nothing new and many cultures have eaten the placenta and it’s common amongst animals in the wild too.

It is perfectly safe to eat your placenta, but your baby shouldn’t. Many people hail the benefits of eating placenta. While these aren’t proven, they reportedly include:

  • Combating the baby blues and post-natal depression by managing your hormone levels.
  • High concentration of nutrients and vitamins restoring what was lost during pregnancy.

There are different ways you can consume your placenta after birth:

Placenta encapsulation

Placenta encapsulation is the process of making capsules you can swallow from the placenta. Many providers offer this in the UK. The placenta is cooked, dehydrated and turned into a powder. These can then be taken within the first few months post-birth.

Cook the placenta

You can clean the placenta, drain its blood and cut away the membranes and cord. It can then be cooked. It will need eating within a few days like any other meat product.

Make a placenta smoothie

If you want the raw benefits of the placenta, then a placenta smoothie is a popular choice. Mix a small part with berries and a banana, as well as water and fruit juice.

For all of these, you must tell your midwife of your wishes in advance and keep the placenta refrigerated and use within 2-3 days. If you aren’t interested in eating your placenta, then you can consider placenta donation. The membrane is useful in reconstructive surgery.