The placenta is a common word you would hear in maternity wards and other delivery rooms. It is a word associated with pregnancy and childbirth. The word placenta comes from the Latin word for a type of cake due to it’s round, flat, appearance in humans. The placenta is a temporary organ that connects the developing fetus (unborn baby) through the umbilical cord to the uterine wall. Placentas are characteristics of placental mammals (animals that carry a fetus in the uterus, such as goat, dog, etc). These placentas are also found in Marsupials (a class of animals that have pouch e.g. kangaroo, koala, etc.)
WHAT THE PLACENTA DOES
The placenta helps to develop the unborn baby by allowing nutrient uptake. It also helps in thermo-regulation, elimination of waste (urea), and also in gas exchange through the mother’s blood supply. This blood supply helps fight against internal infection and produce hormones (progesterone, estrogen, and human placental lactogen) which support pregnancy.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
In humans, the placenta has a dark reddish-blue or crimson color. It usually has a disc shape, but its size varies vastly between different mammalian species. It averages 22cm (9 inch) in length and 2-2.5 cm (0.8-1 inch) in thickness. The center is always the thickest and the edges the thinnest. A placenta weighs approximately 500 grams. The placenta connects to the fetus by an umbilical cord of approximately 55-60cm (22-24 inch) in length, which contains two umbilical arteries and one umbilical vein. Placentas take a form in which comprises several distinct parts connected by blood vessels. It has parts, which may be two, three, four or more.
IN SOCIETIES AND CULTURES
This placenta, which comes out after birth, plays an important role in various cultures. Societies have different means of doing away with the placenta. In most cultures, it is being buried as it is seen as hospital waste. In some places, it is been incinerated. Several cultures believe it to be or have been alive, often a relative of the baby (some regards it as the baby’s older sibling). In some culture, the placenta is eaten, especially in China, a practice which is known as Placentophagy. However, this is considered as cannibalism by western culture. Apart from being used as food, it is also used to manufacture food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. It is also used by the Chinese to prepare traditional Chinese medicine which is thought to be a healthful restorative. In some other cultures, it is stored for research purposes as it is used as stem cells for treating diseases such as leukemia.
PLACENTAS IN NIGERIAN CULTURES
Nigeria is a nation with different ethnic groups and religion and the people’s beliefs about the disposal of placentas differs. The Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria bury placentas because they believe it could be used for diabolical means. Placentas are used for various ritual purposes. After childbirth, it is buried by a close person to the mother of the baby. It is buried in a dug pit and then covered. It is buried properly to prevent carnivorous animals like dogs from digging it up; it is seen as a very bad thing to have animals feast on it as it is said to have an effect on the future of the child.
The Igbo people of southwest Nigeria are also not left out in the burying of placentas. The people treat the placenta as the dead twin of the live child and so give it full burial rites. It is buried at the site of birth after which the baby is bathed. In some parts of Igbo land, it is buried at the foot of Palm trees, kola nut trees or other economic trees. This automatically becomes the child’s inalienable natal tree. In this regard, the mother selects the most fruitful oil Palm tree out of the many that the husband may indicate. It is believed that the natal plant becomes fruitful in proportion to the fame of the child’s subsequent achievement as an adult.
In some parts of Northern Nigeria, placentas are also buried far away from the house. It is often referred to as the “traveling companion”. It is believed to usher the new human from one world to the next. Proper burial is therefore given to the placenta as it is seen as the future fertility of the woman, so it is protected. This protection is believed to be against rituals which may be as a result of envy from co-wives who might “tie-up” the mother’s womb. Care is, therefore, to be taken to bury the placenta after childbirth.
The Nigerian culture allows the burial of placentas as against the other cultures that eat or use it for other means; it is either buried or incinerated as it will only decay when kept.
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