The first time I gave birth, after a long and traumatic labor, I held my daughter in my arms while somewhere nearby, silently and out of sight, the part of my body that once tethered us together was placed into a bag, labeled “medical waste,” and thrown into the trash.
Like many mothers in Western cultures (and all over the world), I didn’t know enough about my placenta to have any sentimental or spiritual attachment to it at the time; I didn’t know I’d wish I had kept it. But as education and awareness about the placenta grows, many mothers are more carefully considering the right way to discard—or not discard—this incredible organ rich in symbolism and significance.
For those unfamiliar, the placenta is the baby’s genetic twin: Both begin as a single cell before splitting apart to form the embryo and placenta. Growing rapidly within the uterus alongside the baby, the placenta serves as a complete source of nourishment and protection. It acts as the baby’s liver, lungs, kidneys, gut, endocrine system and immune system. It transfers antibodies to the growing baby to improve their immunity after they are born. It has two sides: The “maternal side” is attached to the uterus, while the “fetal side” is there for the baby to cuddle up against. It is, by all accounts, a completely brilliant organ that sustains and nourishes life; it’s the first site of connection and communication between a mother and her child.
Once the placenta is delivered—like a baby, it too must be birthed—its treatment varies widely based on the mother’s social norms and cultural practices. In hospital births in the U.S. and many parts of the Western world, the placenta is most often treated as medical waste. (In a recent poll of 2,977 mothers I conducted on Instagram, 88% said their placenta was discarded after their birth; and of those respondents, only 50% said their care providers mentioned the placenta, presented it, or requested consent to discard it.)
But in many other cultures across the globe, the placenta holds a place of honor and significance. In New Zealand, the Maori use the same word for both placenta and land—whenua—and it is customary for the placenta to be buried in a special place to return it to the Earth Mother.
In parts of China and Southeast Asia among the Hmong people, the word for placenta means “jacket”; many believe that after death, the soul must recover it to cross back over into the spirit world.
The Igbo people of Nigeria have historically referred to the placenta as “Our Mother,” and many believe that burying it connects the child to the welfare and fertility spirits of the ground.
Among the Kaqchikel, a Maya people of the midwestern Guatemalan highlands, midwives refer to the placenta in terms that mean “soul,” “center,” or “heart.”
In Bali, the placenta is believed to be the physical body of the child’s guardian angel.
There are many more—but the clear line that runs through them all is a profound respect and reverence for the organ that the National Institute of Health’s Human Placenta Project only recently (in 2015) deemed “one of the most important organs in the body… [and one that] influences not just the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy, but also the lifelong health of both mother and child.” These ancient traditions, it seems, have long honored something that modern medicine is just beginning to acknowledge and understand.
When I gave birth a second time, I let my medical team know I’d be taking my placenta home with me. Moments after delivering my son, still delirious from two days of labor and starry-eyed from our first encounter, the nurses asked me what I was going to do with it. “I don’t know yet,” I said, “but it’s a part of me, and a part of my baby, so I can’t stick it in a trash can.” Once home, with my placenta stashed safely in my freezer, I set out to decide what, exactly, I wanted to do with it—that’s how the list below was born—and why I had felt so called to keep it.
Louise Erdrich once wrote that “what we profoundly need are rituals that take into regard the blood, the shock, the heat… the anguish, the irritation, the glory, the earnestness of the female body.” She hits on something that’s missing for many mothers in American society: any acknowledgement, whatsoever, of the earth-shattering transformation that is childbirth. (Even baby showers, our only mainstream celebration of birth, focus more on names and nursery decor than, say, strategies and support for the profound physical and psychological shock of matrescence.)
It’s no surprise, then, that placenta rituals—whether rooted in tradition, religion or simply respect—are on the rise. Maybe we’re collectively craving a sense of peace, power, commemoration and closure to an experience that rips us apart and rebuilds us. Maybe it’s our way of looking at birth—at really acknowledging the grit of it—when society so often tells us to look away. Maybe by embracing our placenta, by holding it in our hands or hanging a print of it on our wall, we are pushing back against the idea that the raw, physical, bloody work of birth is worthy of anything less than awe.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision almost a year after his birth, I buried my son’s placenta with a beautiful weeping cherry tree in our backyard. My eyes welled with tears as we covered it with earth and I said a silent goodbye to what felt like one big, blurry chapter of my life: a chaotic pregnancy followed by a challenging first year as a mom of two. When spring arrived, it brought a bloom of fuchsia flowers that looked electric against the cerulean sky.
And now, every time I gaze at the tree, I feel a little glimmer light up inside of me: I think of my son growing along with it. I think about the cycle of life; how certain seasons feel long, but never last. I feel gratitude for my body and what it built; for the baby playing in front of the tree, and for the piece of us that now nourishes the earth there.
9 ways to honor your placenta
After speaking with hundreds of mothers for this story (in addition to doulas, nurses and doctors) it’s clear that many mothers want to forge a stronger connection with their placenta after birth—whether it’s by simply seeing it and appreciating it prior to discarding, or bringing it home for something more. “Just keep in mind that if you’re giving birth at a hospital, you may need to advocate for your wishes to depart with it,” says Kimberly Summer Denitz-Zuleger, PMH-C, CLC, CPT, a doula known as “Mama Three Birds” on Instagram. Be sure to talk to your OB or care provider in advance, if possible, and remind staff in the delivery room to ensure your placenta isn’t misplaced.
1. Request a “tour” of your placenta
A “placenta tour” is a great way to observe and appreciate the organ that helped bring your baby into the world, whether you plan to discard it afterward or do something else. “A tour would typically happen during your immediate recovery time, or in early hours after birth when you’re relaxing and things around you are likely being cleaned up,” says Lo Mansfield, MSN, RN, a pregnancy, birth, and postpartum educator known as “The Labor Mama” on Instagram.
“There are two sides, so I like to point out which is the fetal side and which is the maternal side. You can also look for the ‘tree of life,’ which is the network of veins that run across the surface of the placenta to the cord insertion,” says Mansfield. (More on that below.) And if your amniotic sac is still relatively attached? “It’s neat to be able to flip it all ‘inside out’ and try to orient the family to how the placenta was attached in the body and where the baby was inside all of it.”
2. Offer up a prayer, blessing or gratitude for your placenta
Honoring your placenta doesn’t need to be a prolonged or elaborate affair; just a few short, simple words can be extremely powerful. “We prayed over my placenta and thanked it for sustaining our son’s life,” says Julie E., a mom in Belton, TX. “It was so beautiful to see.”
Whether you say a few words aloud or simply close your eyes and reflect on your placenta with gratitude, taking a brief pause for reflection can bring a sense of calmness and closure to your delivery.
3. Take photos or video of your placenta
We don’t think twice about snapping photos of ultrasounds, growing baby bumps, or wrinkly little newborns fresh out of the womb—so why not capture a picture of the placenta, too? “I took my placenta home so I could take a picture of it fully laid out,” says Ana M. of Nashville, TN. “I just wanted to honor and see for myself what my body created.”
Ask a support person to snap a few shots in the delivery room (during “tour” would be a great time); or, if you plan on working with a photographer for birth photos—either in the hospital or at home—ask to have your placenta included on the shot list.
4. Donate your placenta to train search and rescue animals
A placenta’s sole purpose is to nurture a new life—and it could help save one, too. “I donated my placenta to a local search and rescue organization, which uses them to help dogs locate humans lost in the snow or woods,” says Brook A. of Portland, OR. “It’s pretty cool that I was able to help their team.” Reach out to local rescue organizations to learn more about donation options unique to your region.
5. Donate your placenta for medical research
Donating your placenta to science can be a great option for mothers who want to help make a difference—but it’s important to proceed with caution here, as not all donation opportunities are made equally. Some hospitals partner with third-party, for-profit agencies who procure placentas and then sell them (with a steep markup) to various companies that develop therapeutic treatments. (These groups frequently approach mothers who deliver by planned Cesarean when they arrive at the hospital, or shortly before.) While there’s certainly a chance that donating to these agencies may contribute to positive medical developments, it’s important to know that the industry has raised ethical concerns and donations may fuel stem-cell scams.
If the situation presents itself, a safer option is to donate your placenta to academic research. “In that case, you’d be asked to donate for a very specific project—for example, research on Covid infection,” says Rachel Blake, MD, FACOG, a board-certified OB-GYN. “The study would be sponsored by a university and led by specific researchers. You’d likely have an informed consent document to review, and there would be a research project ID number that you could look up on a national database.”
6. Make a “tree of life” print with your placenta
Thanks to intricate, branch-like veining on the fetal side of the placenta, it is often called “the tree of life”—and many mothers choose to capture this unique imprint in the form of artwork. To make your own print, gently wash the placenta and remove any membranes (it’s ideal to do this as soon as possible after birth—but if it was frozen, thaw it first). “Use high-quality, acid-free paper and as many watercolor or acrylic paint colors as you’d like,” says Denitz-Zuleger.
“When you’re ready to make the print, it’s best to leave the placenta on your surface and then take the paper to it, pressing down on all parts, including the cord—which represents the trunk—to ensure you get all parts of the tree.” Flip the paper over, and let sit to dry. “If you don’t love how it turned out or want multiple versions, just wash the placenta and try it again.”
7. Turn a piece of your placenta into keepsake jewelry
Crafted with materials like breastmilk, placenta, formula, cremation ashes, special flowers and locks of hair, handmade keepsake jewelry is a surprisingly beautiful way to commemorate your motherhood journey. When looking for the right jeweler, skill and experience are important.
“Be sure to check out examples of previous work, customer reviews, and how long the company has been in business,” says Shay Thomson, the founder and artist behind Honoring Motherhood, a company that specializes in keepsake breastmilk jewelry. Here’s one gorgeous example, made with part of an umbilical cord, that looks like opal.
8. Plant your placenta with a tree
Based on responses from hundreds of moms, this is one of the most popular placenta rituals today—and it has deep roots in religious and cultural beliefs all across the world. “The thought is that the tree grows as the child does, serving as a beautiful reminder of life,” says Mansfield. (In some cultures, the tree is also thought to act as a protector of the child.) One mom I spoke to worked her tree into an annual family tradition: “I planted my placenta under a gum tree on my daughter’s first birthday. We now take a photo of her next to the growing tree each year.”
Another mom, Emily B. of Manawatu, New Zealand, planted her placenta underneath a magnolia tree outside her daughter’s bedroom; they can watch it bloom during her birth month every year. And while we can’t report this as fact (no studies have been done, yet!), many moms said that their placenta trees grew more quickly than anticipated, offered up huge blossoms, and yielded an unusually high amount of fruit.
9. Grieve the loss of it
If you did not leave the hospital with your placenta for any reason, but wished to—either at the time or in hindsight—there are still ways to honor your placenta and find closure. First, know that your complex feelings about your birth experience are valid. “It can feel like a part of you is missing, or as if something was left ‘unsaid’ from birth,” says Denitz-Zuleger, who suggests journaling and meditation to help release your grief.
“Hold your womb, and visualize bringing your placenta back to you. Thank it, and then release it.” This practice helps you connect with what you lost, and creates space for your sadness to be felt and seen, she says. “This process may include other parts of the birth as well, and is just a small example of how we can connect to parts of us that need healing.”