What is the placenta?

What is the placenta?

What is the placenta?

You’re having a baby! There is so much to prepare for, bringing a new baby into your home. Your body is in the process of changing. Much of your focus will now be on childbirth. The more informed you are about the childbirth process the better. Let’s take a closer look at the least understood human organ yet one of the most important in your child’s birth process, the placenta.

The Role of the Placenta

Placenta researchers at The National Institutes of Health have developed a chip that models the placenta’s functions of filtering nutrients and delivering important components such as water, oxygen, and antibodies to the baby. Not only does the placenta make deliveries, but it also keeps out unwanted organisms such as viruses and bacteria.

The study is being conducted to learn more about how substances are transferred between mom and baby. The chip will provide more knowledge for doctors and practitioners to better understand placenta health. Improved assessment will provide more options and allow for more women to have healthy pregnancies.

Placenta Facts

The placenta is an amazing organ that is completely unique to every pregnancy. There are many unanswered questions about how it operates and there is still a lot to learn about it. However, here are a few amazing facts we do already know about the magical, mystery organ.

  • The placenta is capable of pumping 20 percent of your body’s blood supply, every minute.
  • It produces its own hormones for increasing blood cell production. It also increases your metabolism to help support you and a baby.
  • At the end of your pregnancy, the placenta will signal new hormones to signal the beginning of milk production.
  • Identical twins may have to share lodging (one placenta). They do each get their own umbilical cord. When the fertilized egg splits before the placenta is formed, each embryo will have its own placenta.
  • The placenta has its own growth rates. It grows as the baby develops. By the time your baby is born, it may measure 8 or 9 inches wide, and weigh up to three pounds.
  • Genes from the placenta can predict genetic diseases, autism, premature birth, and preeclampsia. Since the placenta shares genes with the fetus, samples from the placenta can be used to make important predictions.
  • Ever heard of afterbirth? This is the third stage of childbirth. The placenta can take anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes to deliver after the baby is born.
  • Women have been eating their placenta for thousands of years. Animals regularly eat it after giving birth. However, some studies suggest that eating the placenta does not prevent depression or boost energy. (Sigh of relief!)
  • Talk about capillaries, the placenta has 32 miles of combined capillary length. The placenta is the only human organ that disposes of itself when no longer needed.

Placenta Formation

Unless you understand complex words such as cytotrophoblasts and syncytiotrophoblasts, there is complicated terminology in the explanation of placenta formation. Fortunately, the US Department of Health and Human Serviceshas a scaled-down version of the stages. We can break it down into a few steps.

Step 1: Between 0 and 13 weeks, the fertilized blastocyst embeds into the wall of the uterus. This is the time when the fetus and the placenta begin to develop. Villi (plural for villus), which are specially designed for the placenta, begin lining the uterine wall. Their job is to reshape the blood vessels. These newly remodeled cells will become the source of blood to the placenta. After it all, it feeds, oxygenates and protects the fetus.

Step 2: Once this first step is completed, the placenta will now need to bring more oxygen into the picture as the fetus continues to develop. The villi will begin sending dense branches out to accommodate the increasing demands of the fetus as it grown and develops.

Step 3: As the size of the fetus increases, spiral arteries in the wall of the uterus are remodeled. (And you thought you had a lot of remodeling to do!) This is necessary to increase the blood supply to the rapidly growing fetus. The vessels become larger in the placenta and are optimized for the increased blood flow.

Anterior vs. Posterior

Which side of the placenta your baby is located makes no difference to the baby. If your baby is close to your spine, or on the front side of the uterus, this is called anterior placement. The back of the uterus – you guessed it – is posterior placement. Mom may feel less movement early on in anterior placement because the placenta will serve as a cushion between baby and tummy. Your practitioner may have more difficulty hearing fetal heart sounds.

A fetus may move to a more posterior placement as the pregnancy progresses. There are no health risks for anterior placement unless the placenta is also lying low in the uterus. This could potentially block the cervix and the baby’s way out. Often, even a low-lying placenta will migrate and relocate by the due date.

Right vs. Left

To determine the right side of the placenta vs. the left side, read our article regarding the Ramzi Theory and placental orientation.

Placenta Complications

About Kid’s Health discusses some of the complications that can arise with the placenta during pregnancy. These complications can be serious and cause a health risk for both the mother and baby.

Placental insufficiency

This is the failure of the placenta to provide enough nutrients to the fetus. This occurs when the placenta does not grow or function properly. Some symptoms may include lack of fetal movement or low birth weight. Fetal growth restriction can be detected by measuring the top of the uterus during medical visits. The size and condition of the placenta can also be monitored using ultrasound.

Infarcts in the placenta

When dead tissue forms in the placenta, there is reduced blood flows in those areas. This may be due to a problem with the placenta’s blood vessels. Women suffering from pregnancy-induced hypertension often have an increased number of infarcts. Women with severe hypertension should be monitored closely for this complication.

Placenta previa

In less than 1% of pregnancies, the placenta may implant in the lower part of the uterus. In a normal pregnancy, the placenta implants in the upper part. This condition is more common in older women, cigarette smokers, minorities, and women who have had abortions or cesarean sections. A cesarean section may be required if the placenta is blocking the cervix.

Placental abruption 

This is where part of the placenta separates from the uterus during the pregnancy. There can be partial tears or complete separation. If the placenta does separate, blood vessels break which results in severe bleeding. This occurs in less than 1% of pregnancies and may cause death for unborn and newborn babies. Symptoms include bleeding, pain, contractions, and abnormalities in the fetal heart rate.

Placenta accrete

This a condition where the placenta grows too deeply into the wall of the uterus. This results in improper separation of the uterus after the baby is born. Placenta accrete is most seen in women who have uterine scarring from previous births or other uterine surgeries. If this occurs, the placenta must be removed surgically to stop the bleeding.

The good news is that placenta complications are not common during most pregnancies. The other good news is that if there are complications, they can usually be detected by routine tests. Regular examinations are important. It is also important to have any unusual symptoms diagnosed right away so any problems can be addressed. So relax, enjoy the process, eat healthy, exercise, and let your placenta do its amazing job. 

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