Perhaps you have heard of the latest “natural” birthing trend called a “lotus birth”? This practice involves leaving the newborn attached to the placenta until the umbilical cord separates “naturally” or, to be blunt about it, rots off.
Let’s get two sets of basic facts established before we continue:
- The placenta receives its oxygenated blood from the maternal side. The uterus keeps the placenta alive. The umbilical vein in the umbilical cord carries oxygenated blood from the placenta to the fetus and the umbilical cord arteries return deoxygenated blood from the fetus to the placenta.
- When organs lose their blood supply they die and decomposition sets in within minutes. Dead flesh is a good place for bacteria to grow.
There have already been reports of tragic but predictable outcomes. Several colleagues have told me about serious infections in newborns and there has been a reported case of hepatitis. Someone told me their friend kept the placenta attached in its own diaper (as one does), but had to discard the placenta after a day or two because the cat fancied more than a nibble. Excellent, feline oral bacteria in a culture medium attached to a newborn baby. What could possibly go wrong?
How did this madness start?
I admit I became rather obsessed with the origin story of “lotus births.” The ancient Greeks had nothing to say on the subject of dry aging the placenta. It seems the afterbirth has always been an afterbirth. This does not surprise me as we humans figured out pretty quickly that it was better to bury or cremate our dead and not to shit where we eat. For thousands of years people have also known that raw meat was a source of illness.
The first mention of a “lotus birth” in the medical literature was in 2001 in a journal titled Midwifery Today International Midwife (Issue 58, Summer 2001), which is basically a collection of essays about particularly magical births and opinion pieces. The article which I could not locate through the journal’s website is available online here. I use the term article loosely because at times it reads like an incantation in a book of spells. The article includes this vignette:
My now grown daughter Dj is in a panic. “I’ve lost my purse! Mother help me. I’ll die without my purse!” Dj’s purse is oval shaped, weighing about 1 1/2 lbs., is brown-red in color and has a long strap. Misplacing it causes her to panic, her breathing becomes labored. She cries for mother. Moments after Dj cried, “I’ll die without my purse!” Our eyes met in a moment of “a-ha”. She laughed out loud and said, “This is all your fault mother, you never should have let my cord be cut.” We hugged and one of Dj’s brothers unearthed the essential purse, the surrogate placenta.
Never has a paragraph rendered me so entirely and utterly speechless.
But wait, there’s more. The author writes about a five-day old placenta still attached to a newborn and swaddled in a diaper (apparently treated with herbs, I’m guessing for the odor but that is glossed over) that apparently “pulsed.” The father, a Ph.D., proclaimed, “ I am not fooled by the dry appearance of the cord, deep in the center there is life. Something essential is being provided to my baby by his placenta.”
The author herself ponders on the many babies that she has delivered who have cried out or flinched the very moment their cords were cut. I would like to pause and insert the biological fact that the umbilical cord has no nociceptors and as such is unable to transmit sensations of pain. In addition, no fetal stress response has been identified with puncturing the umbilical cord during in utero procedures. Apparently anatomy and physiology are trivial matters to be discarded when they don’t fit the narrative.
But chimpanzees do it!
The actual origin of the “lotus birth” seems to belong to someone named Claire Lotus Day who in 1974 heard that chimpanzees did not sever the umbilical cord after birth so yeah, humans should totally do it! That is the extent of it. Really.
Obviously it must have escaped Ms. Lotus Day’s attention that chimpanzees have many differences from humans, such as significant anatomical differences, they do fine with unassisted births (unlike humans), have a different diet, and of course they throw feces.
So here we are with grown adults thinking a dead placenta magically nourishes a newborn because a woman heard chimpanzees leave their cords alone. Then some midwives and an Australian doctor named Sarah Buckley decided to brand it as a modern ritual. And then a “journal” legitimized it. And legitimized it some more.
And now you can buy hand crafted lotus birth placenta bags on Etsy. No really, you can.
The placenta is an organ and without blood flow organs die. A newborn does not supply blood to a placenta.
It is generally a good thing to delay cutting the cord by up to 60 seconds. This increases the hemoglobin and iron stores for term babies and has some significant benefits for preterm infants.
Once separated from the mother the placenta starts to decompose and becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. This is not a metaphor.
The umbilical cord is physiologically incapable of transmitting pain signals so no one is hurting anyone when the cord is cut, however, my brain is on fire knowing anyone in charge of delivering babies could believe cutting the umbilical cord causes pain or distress and that an editor printed it.
Real serious consequences for newborns have been described. Who knows if parents decide to do this in a hospital if the placenta could be a bacterial vector and contaminate other babies, siblings, or immunocompromised patients?
If you lose things it is not because you were detached from a dead piece of tissue it means your house is disorganized or you are stressed or you just forgot or instead of teaching you organizational skills your mother always blamed your silly old placenta.
It amazes me that people will disbelieve the risk of leaving a dead placenta attached to their baby but would never drive their newborn without a car seat.
The placenta cannot nourish anything after it is separated from the uterine wall.
If a placenta has cultural significance for you then bury it with the appropriate ceremony.
A “lotus birth” is biologically unsound, untested, and real harm to babies has been described. It is the equivalent of diapering up a raw steak and attaching to your newborn for three to five days. It is not a magical, historical or cultural practice forcibly torn away from women by an uncaring patriarchy it was something a woman dreamed up after hearing about chimpanzees. To brand this as a modern ritual is nothing but predatory marketing.