Understanding the Placenta

By Danielle Pastula

Pregnancy is a beautiful and exciting time in a woman’s life, but it can also be confusing and even scary for first-time expecting moms. 

We’re guessing you’ve stocked up on all the “What to Expect …” types of books you can get your hands on, but even if you’re a mom-to-be who has no interest in poring over books, here’s some essential info about the placenta that you’ll be glad to know come your due date. 

The placenta is a separate organ that develops during pregnancy and attaches to the wall of the uterus. The role of the placenta is to act as a filtration system for your baby. The placenta delivers oxygen and nutrients to your baby, and it also removes waste products from his or her blood. This transfer and removal of nutrients and waste is facilitated through the umbilical cord. 


The placenta doesn’t just gradually disappear after you have your baby. If you deliver your baby vaginally, you’ll also experience what’s called the “third stage of labor.” You’ll have some more mild contractions and need to push to deliver your placenta. If you have a C-section, the placenta will be removed during the procedure. 

After delivering the placenta, the medical staff will properly dispose of it for you, or, as some women are choosing to do, you can keep some of your placenta for postpartum consumption. This practice is referred to as placentophagy and many holistic 

health practitioners believe it aids in labor recovery, relieves 

pain, lowers your chances of postpartum depression, and prevents breastfeeding ailments, among other things. 


Placenta Previa 

Placenta previa occurs when your placenta is lying lower in the uterus and partially or fully covers your cervix. Placenta previa may be present in your first trimester, however the placenta is likely to move further away from the cervix as your pregnancy advances. 

According to Dr. Kay Roussos-Ross, the Associate Professor and Chief of the Division of Academic Specialists in General Obstetrics and Gynecology as well as the Medical Director of Women’s Health at the Medical Plaza, if your ultrasound still shows placenta previa halfway through your pregnancy or in the third trimester, you’ll be advised pelvic rest and will have to have a C-section. Placenta previa occurs in approximately three to five pregnancies out of 1,000, Roussos-Ross said. 

Placenta Accreta 

Placenta accreta occurs when blood vessels and other parts of the placenta grow into the uterine wall, which results in the placenta remaining attached to the uterus after childbirth. 

According to Roussos-Ross, the main risk factor for placenta accreta is the occurrence of prior C-sections. The risk exponentially increases with each prior C-section, and if present, placenta accreta typically requires a hysterectomy at the time of delivery. 

Placenta accreta can usually be detected during a routine ultrasound. However if you experience any bleeding, especially in the third trimester, Roussos-Ross advises that you let your doctor know immediately. 

Placental Abruption 

Placental abruption refers to the occurrence of the placenta detaching from the uterine wall either partially or fully before delivery. It can either develop rapidly due to force trauma such as a car accident or fall, or develop slowly over the course of the pregnancy, due to factors such as pre-eclampsia or smoking. 

While rare (roughly 0.3 to 1 percent of pregnancies), placental abruption is a very serious pregnancy complication for both mom and baby as it can deprive the baby of oxygen and cause major blood loss for the mother, Roussos-Ross said. 

Some symptoms of placental abruption include painful vaginal bleeding, severe abdominal and back pain, and rapid contractions. If you experience any of these symptoms, immediately seek medical attention. 

It’s a lot of information to take in, but don’t let it scare you. The more you know, the better you can prepare for anything pregnancy throws your way! 


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