The placenta's important role in pregnancy
Read all about this amazing organ that a pregnant woman's body grows especially to nurture her developing baby. Also find out about placenta-related health issues in pregnancy and when you should be worried.
When you think about it, pregnancy is amazing; a miracle even when you consider that you’re growing a brand new life within the confines of your womb. There is one organ that supports your little one right through your pregnancy that is also rather miraculous: the placenta.
The placenta is grown by a woman’s body especially to support her pregnancy from beginning to end. It is the life-line that connects mummy and baby and protects and nurtures your little one in numerous ways.
This article is all about the placenta: its role in pregnancy and when you should be concerned that not all is well with the placenta, warranting medical attention.
What is the placenta?
The placenta is an organ specially grown in your uterus during pregnancy to support your developing baby. It is made up of the same cells as your baby is and attaches itself to the wall of your uterus, usually at the top or side.
Your placenta is also the starting point of your baby’s umbilical cord, and it grows as your baby grows and as the amount of amniotic fluid increases.
After your baby is born, your placenta — which by now is around the size of a dinner plate — is also delivered. Some women opt to consume their placenta in the form of specially made pills. You can read all about placenta encapsulation and what it involves by following this link.
What does the placenta do?
Your growing baby gets all the oxygen and nutrients he needs via the placenta, throughout the duration of your pregnancy.
This happens because the placenta links your blood supply with your baby’s, transferring everything he needs to grow and develop, directly to him. In fact, experts point out that during every minute of pregnancy, “around 550 millilitres of blood is pumped into the uterus to exchange enough nutrients with the placenta for your baby.”
This is also why pregnant mums need to be careful about what they eat and drink during pregnancy, as well as the drugs they take, as these pass directly to their growing baby.
The placenta also produces hormones that help to trigger labour. But until the time is right for your baby’s birth, the placenta secretes hormones such as progesterone and estrogen to prevent early labour.
This incredible organ also removes waste products from your baby’s blood to yours, which your body disposes of. At the same time, it keeps your baby’s and your blood separate, almost acting like a filter, which helps to protect your baby from infections and harmful substances.
According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), towards the end of your pregnancy, “the placenta passes antibodies from you to your baby, giving them immunity for about three months after birth.”
The placenta also works almost like a padding to cushion your baby while within your womb, and provides your little one with the perfect, unique environment to thrive and grow.
There are various factors that affect the health of your placenta, according to the medical experts at Mayo Clinic. While there’s nothing much you can do to change some of these, other factors are modifiable.
- Maternal age: Pregnant women over the age of 40 are at a higher risk of placental problems.
- High blood pressure: Hypertension during pregnancy can have a negative effect on your placenta.
- Premature rupture of the membranes: If your baby’s amniotic sac (a fluid-filled membrane surrounding him or her) leaks or ruptures prematurely during pregnancy, your placenta can be affected.
- Substance abuse: Women who smoke or use drugs such as cocaine during pregnancy are at a higher risk of experiencing placental problems.
- Multiple pregnancy: Carrying twins or triplets (or more) may increase the likelihood of the mother experiencing issues with her placenta.
- Abdominal trauma: Some placental problems may arise if a pregnant mum suffers a blow to her stomach or other similar trauma.
- Blood-clotting disorders: If you have a medical condition that affects your blood’s clotting ability, you may be at a higher risk of suffering from placental health problems.
Common placental problems
Most of the time and in most pregnancies, the placenta functions just fine. But sometimes, placental problems can crop up, particularly in advanced pregnancy.
The following are the most commonly encountered medical issues with the placenta:
1. Placenta Previa
What it is: This conditions occurs as a result of the placenta partially or completely covering the cervix which is the womb’s opening. It usually is experienced in early pregnancy and sometimes corrects itself as the uterus grows.
Risk factors: Smoking and drug use, getting pregnant after 35, being pregnant with multiples.
Health risks: Placenta previa can cause severe bleeding during or after baby’s birth, endangering the lives of both mum and baby. The birth process may be disrupted too since the cervix is fully or partially covered.
Signs and symptoms: Sometimes there are no symptoms at all and the condition might be picked up by a routine ultrasound. Other times, placenta previa is marked by painless vaginal bleeding.
Treatment: If placenta previa is experienced in the first half of the pregnancy, it usually corrects itself. However, you will still be monitored carefully by your obstetrician for the duration of your pregnancy. If the condition is still present in the second half of your pregnancy, it is highly likely that your doctor will recommend a C-section to deliver your baby.
2. Placental abruption
What it is: Here, the placenta peels away (partially or fully) from the womb’s inner wall, usually close to delivery, but sometimes as early as 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Risk factors: Trauma to the abdomen, being older than 35, being pregnant with multiples, not having enough amniotic fluid, water breaking too early, uncontrolled high blood pressure, smoking and using drugs (e.g. cocaine).
Health risks: Baby can be starved of oxygen and nutrition, and mum can experience bleeding and cramps. Placental abruption may also trigger premature birth.
Signs and symptoms: Continuous or sudden stomach pain, bleeding from the vagina sometimes with discomfort and tenderness of the uterus.
Treatment: If you are close to being full term and you have mild placental disruption, your doctor may suggest immediate delivery of your baby, either via induced labour or C-section. If you are diagnosed with this condition early on in your pregnancy, you will probably be monitored closely by your healthcare provider.
3. Placenta accreta
What it is: Medical experts explain that this condition is a result of placental blood vessels growing too deeply into the wall of the uterus. Also, “more-aggressive forms of this problem can also occur if the placenta invades the muscles of the uterus (placenta increta) or if the placenta grows through the uterine wall (placenta percreta).”
Risk factors: Previous uterine surgery or having had placenta previa.
Health risks: Severe bleeding following vaginal birth or premature birth.
Signs and symptoms: Heavy vaginal bleeding in the third trimester.
Treatment: C-section delivery followed by surgical removal of the uterus (abdominal hysterectomy). More-aggressive forms of this problem can also occur if the placenta invades the muscles of the uterus (placenta increta) or if the placenta grows through the uterine wall (placenta percreta).
4. Retained placenta
What it is: Sometimes, the placenta gets trapped in the uterus after the birth of your baby, because of a partially closed cervix, or because it is still attached to the uterine wall.
Health risks: Heavy bleeding (postpartum hemorrhage) that may affect the health of the mother if not stopped.
Signs and symptoms: No delivery of the placenta 30 to 60 minutes after the birth of your baby.
Treatment: If you have not delivered your placenta within 30 to 60 minutes after the birth of your baby, your healthcare providers may give you an injection of syntometrine or syntocinon to make your uterus contract strongly, thus expelling the placenta. In some cases, doctors may manually remove the placenta (following numbing of the area).
Mums, while it’s unlikely that you will experience any problems with your placenta in your pregnancy, do consult your doctor without delay if you experience:
- Vaginal bleeding
- Trauma to your abdomen
- Strong uterine contractions
- Severe back pain
Also, make sure you visit your healthcare provider regularly throughout your pregnancy — the earlier placental issues are diagnosed, the better the chance is of reducing complications both for you and your baby.
*All content in this article is opinion only and based on the author’s personal research. For all health conditions and medical advise, please consult with your healthcare provider.