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​​What Is the Placenta and What Does It Do?

When you become pregnant, you not only grow a baby — you also grow a new internal organ. The placenta, which is crucial to both your baby’s development and your own metabolic health during pregnancy, forms and attaches to the uterine wall at fertilization. 

Role of the Placenta 

The placenta is a complex organ consisting of a thick membrane and blood vessels that connect mother to baby via the umbilical cord. For the fetus, the placenta acts as a filter, delivering oxygen, glucose and other nutrients. It blocks out potentially harmful substances and removes carbon dioxide and waste from the baby’s blood. For the mother, the placenta produces the hormones lactogen, estrogen and progesterone needed to establish the ideal physiological environment for the baby’s development. Here’s how it develops: 

  • First trimester: The placenta’s growth will mirror the embryo’s, beginning as a few cells then growing to weigh close to a pound.

  • Second trimester: By this point, the placenta will be fully formed and identifiable on ultrasound imaging tests used to monitor your baby’s growth.

  • After delivery: Immediately after the baby is born, the body naturally expels the placenta (often called the ‘third stage of labor’) as its job is now complete. With C-section births, the doctor will manually help remove the placenta.

Potential Complications

In most instances, the placenta will develop normally, but there are rare situations during which complications occur. These include: 

  •  Placenta accreta — The placenta imbeds itself too deeply or firmly into the mother’s uterine wall and could lead to hemorrhaging during or after delivery. Other more invasive forms of this problem include placenta increta, an even deeper growth, and placenta percreta, where the placenta grows through the uterine wall and attaches to other organs.

  •  Placenta abruption — The placenta disconnects from the womb before delivery. This can cause pain and/or bleeding and affect the level of oxygen and nutrients the baby is receiving. You might have to deliver early.

  • Placental insufficiency — The placenta does not operate properly, depriving the baby of oxygen and nutrients, which affects its growth.

  • Placenta previa — The placenta remains low in the uterus, partially or totally blocking the cervix, inhibiting the baby’s exit. This condition often requires a cesarean birth. 

5 Ways To Keep Your Placenta Healthy 

There are simple steps you can take to help this vital organ operate at peak efficiency throughout your pregnancy.

  1. Keep all your prenatal care appointments with your obstetrician. The health of your placenta is traced through the health of your baby and easily monitored through regular visits and ultrasound testing.

  2. Provide a complete health history to your doctor. Potential complications can be avoided or controlled if identified early on. High-risk conditions include the mother’s genetic history, other illnesses such as diabetes or high blood pressure, and previous surgeries.

  3. Avoid drinking, smoking and high-contact sports that might cause trauma to the uterus. The placenta cannot filter out alcohol, nicotine and many medications.

  4. Eat healthy during your pregnancy. Iron supports your placenta’s wellness.

  5. Take precautions to avoid viral infections. The Zika virus is particularly dangerous to the placenta and has been linked to birth defects. COVID-19’s long-term effects on pregnancy are still being researched, but recent tests prove the available vaccines do not appear to cause any damage to the placenta and can help protect both mother and baby from infection and illness.


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