CORVALLIS, Ore. – The largest study to date to examine maternal consumption of the placenta after birth found no harm to the infants when compared to the infants of mothers who did not consume their placenta.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Oregon State University, was just published in the journal Birth.
In a review of more than 23,000 birth records, researchers found no increased risk for three outcomes: Neonatal Intensive Care Unit admissions in the first six weeks of life; neonatal hospitalization in the first six weeks; and neonatal/infant death in the first six weeks.
The study also found that women who reported a history of anxiety or depression were more likely to consume their placentas, and that the most common reason for choosing the practice was to prevent postpartum depression.
“This research, based on a large sample of consumers, gives us a better understanding of why women are consuming placenta after birth and the effects of that consumption on newborns,” said Melissa Cheyney, a licensed midwife, medical anthropologist and associate professor in Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts and one of the study’s co-authors. “The findings also give us a foundation from which to further explore the impact of placenta consumption on postpartum mood disorders.”
The practice of placentophagy, or placenta consumption following birth, is on the rise in the United States. While most commonly thought of as a practice in home and birth center settings, the number of women who give birth in hospitals and opt to consume their placentas is also increasing.
The new study, which examined birth outcomes and newborn risk, as well as how women consume their placentas and their motivations for doing so, contrasts with a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report recommending against placentophagy.
The CDC report is based on a single case study of a baby in Oregon that may have become infected with group B Streptococcus agalactiae following maternal consumption of an infected placenta. Based on that case, the CDC recommends that placenta capsule ingestion should be avoided.
“Our findings were surprising given the recent guidelines recommending against placenta consumption as well as the known risks of consuming uncooked or undercooked meat,” said Daniel Benyshek, a professor of anthropology at UNLV and the study’s lead author. “These new findings give us little reason to caution against human maternal placentophagy out of fear of health risks to the baby.”
The new research also confirms the findings of another research team’s small randomized controlled trial that found no harm to the mothers, or the infants of the mothers, assigned to the placenta consumption group. The trial also found a small, dose-specific impact on maternal hormones after consumption.
The new study was based on the Midwives Alliance of North America Statistics Project, a perinatal registry of maternal and infant health data from midwife-led births primarily at home and in birth centers.
The researchers found that nearly one third of the women in the database consumed their placenta following birth. The most common method of consumption was via capsules containing either cooked or raw, dehydrated and ground placenta. The method of preparation did not appear to impact safety outcomes.
Among this sample of women who planned community births – births in a birth center or home setting rather than a hospital - the researchers found that those who consumed their placenta were more likely to be from a minority racial or ethnic group; hold a bachelor’s degree; be having their first baby; and be from the Western or Rocky Mountain states.
While the study found no risk to babies, it did not examine impact on postpartum mood disorders. Although placentophagy advocates point to its common occurrence among mothers in nearly every land mammal species, and cite a number of purported health benefits for human mothers, additional research is needed to confirm these claims.
“While there is currently no evidence to support the efficacy of placentophagy as treatment for mood disorders such as postpartum depression, our study suggests that if neonatal infection from maternal consumption of the placenta is possible, that it is exceedingly rare,” Cheyney said.
“The fact that so many new mothers are willing to engage in this practice speaks to the potentially debilitating nature of postpartum depression and the understandable desire to avoid it. Maternity care providers should continue to discuss the range of options available to prevent and treat postpartum mood disorders. In addition, it is critical that we discuss safe preparation techniques with all clients.”
About the OSU College of Liberal Arts: The College of Liberal Arts includes the fine and performing arts, humanities and social sciences, making it one of the largest and most diverse colleges at OSU. The college's research and instructional faculty members contribute to the education of all university students and provide national and international leadership, creativity and scholarship in their academic disciplines.