Are You Going to Eat the Placenta? And Other New Age Questions a Modern 1st World Mother Must Endure

It seems a pregnant women is a magnet for unsolicited advice – most often tips for parenting, but even tips regarding how she should give birth. In my own experience, these tips came only from males or childless females, but I’ve not done the research to see whether my anecdotal evidence holds water. In this post, I will explore whether these birthing tips are more likely fact or fiction.

The first tip I encountered at a conference during my first trimester. I was informed that I absolutely MUST give birth in water. Our ancestors did it, and it offers a smooth transition for the baby from the amniotic fluid filled womb to our waterless world. Being no novice to childbirth, I was immediately repelled by the idea, in no small part because women in childbirth frequently lose control of their voluntary organs (to put it lightly). There is variation in how women deliver babies in traditional cultures, such as who is allowed to be present (from no one to female relatives or midwives, typically) to how removed the mother must make herself from the rest of the group, some having to find an isolated hiding spot among the trees (Hrdy, 2009). Despite the variation, in the traditional cultures studied, women give birth on land (e.g. dirt outside, dirt floor in a home) most often while in a squatting or kneeling position. But as to the location of these mythical places where women give birth in water, my searches have been fruitless. And for at least two good reasons – how could that possibly be hygienic in most “traditional” places, lacking chlorine and filtration?, and the faulty assumption this approach implies, that naturally flowing water is as warm and cozy as the amniotic fluid from which the baby emerges.

The second birthing question I received was whether I was going to eat the placenta. I experienced a second eww factor here, but my well-meaning friend was only trying to explain that some women eat the placenta because we’ve been designed to do so to provide us with extra calories after giving birth. When you actually look into this practice, however, it begins to attain mythic proportions as well. In no traditional societies do women regularly engage in the practice of eating the placenta after giving birth (Hrdy, 2009). In fact humans, as well as our great ape relatives, engage in this practice so little that we actually stand out from many other mammalian species. As Hrdy puts it, the people practicing placenta ingestion are New Age women who believe it to be tradition.

The third question is such a personal, but common one for a pregnant woman: epidural or no epidural? My response was pretty unwavering – I was going “natural” with this one. And truly, in cultures without medicinal anesthetics, women do have to give birth without any painkillers. It’s no stroll through the park, but it is doable. However, as I just learned from the book Mothers and Others, the practice of licking the amniotic fluid off of newborns and eating the placenta that many mammals engage in (e.g. dogs, cats) actually serves as a natural anesthetic!

Had I known of the natural anesthetic properties of afterbirth, would I have changed my response to number 2? Not likely. Had water birthing and placenta eating been common practice in traditional societies, that still doesn’t make them best practices (also a valid argument for getting an epidural!) – the infant mortality rate in the U.S. has dropped drastically in no small part due to modern medicinal practices, especially the adoption of sterility. Giving birth is such a personal experience. I am happy to live in a country where I get to make my own choices for how to give birth, and leave the decisions of other expecting mothers to their own discretion.

[Do you have any outlandish labor advice stories to share? Add a comment!]

**Please check back in April for a post about the meetings of the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society (FEPS; http://fepsociety.org) and the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS; http://neepsociety.com).**

References:

Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Rosemarie Sokol Chang

About Rosemarie Sokol Chang

Rosemarie Sokol Chang is an evolutionist trained as a psychological scientist. She is the editor of EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium; the creator of the EvoS Consortium website and the EvoS Blogs; and co-founder of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. She also has been involved in the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society since its inception. She recently edited and contributed to the book Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt. Evolution Matters is a recurring blog focused on concepts and evidence of evolution by natural selection.
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5 Responses to Are You Going to Eat the Placenta? And Other New Age Questions a Modern 1st World Mother Must Endure

  1. Jane Landolin says:

    I for one am looking forward to the day when I can water-birth my infant in a moving stream of glacial melt, disinfect my ripped underparts with afterbirth, and enjoy an invigorating placenta steak after the whole ordeal is over. Enya soundtrack optional.

  2. caitlin says:

    you must consider breast feeding vs. formula!

    and soothing the baby vs. letting him/her cry it out.

  3. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    It’s amazing how politicized and polarized childbirth has become. It’s a lot like food or shopping or anything these days – there’s sort of the politically correct way of doing it (eat whole grains; don’t shop at Wal Mart, etc.) – and people get way on the high horse about it. Pinker talks about these kinds of things as being “moralized” – and childbirth – along with parenting – are among the most moralized things there are these days! In any case, thanks for the great, provocative blog.

  4. Thanks Sara! Once we start having labels for types of people, we can start to stigmatize those groups pretty easily – and that is probably where the wars come in. Unfortunately, I think the more money you have, the better access to resources you have – such as good insurance. My insurance company/hospital made my choices really easy by providing a checklist, and having the professionals remain really neutral so you didn’t feel guilty one way or the other. But every other woman besides me in the birthing class was planning to use some form of medication, and I admit, I did too in the end! I wonder if neutral ends up not being so neutral – like if you say “ah, breastmilk or bottle, no difference” people end up choosing bottle.

  5. Sara says:

    Did you catch the NPR interview a while back (maybe a month or two) with Randi Hutter Epstein? Her take basically seemed to be that the experience of childbirth is becoming more and more polarized, with some women feeling empowered with more interventions and others opting for home/water/natural/etc. births. My read on the interview (and the experience) is that it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate a path based on individual decisions rather than group identification (i.e. “modern” woman w/access to drugs v. earth mama-type). In other words, the conversation (or lack thereof) is an extension of the bogus “mommy-wars” that obscure the actual reality of how anti-family much of American culture/policy can be. (How’s that for a whole lotta two cents?)

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