Important Functions of Your Placenta During Pregnancy

As your waistline expands in response to a growing fetus, another very important development is taking place, that of your placenta. The placenta is the organ that connects the fetus to the uterine wall. The placenta is essentially the support system between mother and baby, while the umbilical cord acts as the lifeline.

The placenta supplies nutrients to your fetus, removes waste, produces necessary pregnancy hormones and provides immunity. With such a substantial role in the development of your baby, an issue with the placenta can be a serious cause for concern.

Many factors can affect the overall functioning of the placenta, such as maternal age, high blood pressure, and substance abuse problems, to name a few. Placental problems such as a retained placenta, placental abruption, previa, or accreta can occur and cause complications in your pregnancy. It’s absolutely crucial to be able to identify symptoms related to placental problems and understand all of the preventative and treatment measures available.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about the placenta, and why it is such an important part of a healthy pregnancy.

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16 What is the Placenta?

During pregnancy, an organ called the placenta develops in your uterus. It is a flat, round-like organ that typically attaches to the wall of the uterus at the top or side. The umbilical cord (which directly connects mother and baby) develops from the placenta.

Together, the placenta and umbilical cord are what allow your growing baby to survive. The placenta provides oxygen and nutrients, while also removing waste from your baby’s blood. It’s very important to have a functioning placenta and umbilical cord in order to grow a healthy, nourished baby. After the delivery of the baby, the placenta is also delivered, commonly called the afterbirth.

15 What is the Umbilical Cord?

While the placenta connects to the uterine lining, the umbilical cord connects the placenta directly to the fetus. Three blood vessels make up the umbilical cord. Two small arteries supply the placenta with blood, while a larger vein returns the blood to the fetus.

To avoid the possibility of damaging the placenta, umbilical cord or the baby, the umbilical cord can grow up to 60cm long. Despite its length, sometimes the cord becomes wrapped around part of the baby or becomes knotted. This is fairly common and although it sounds threatening, is not generally a problem. Once the baby is born the umbilical cord is severed, separating the mother from the baby.

14 When Does it Form?

The placenta forms once implantation of the embryo occurs in the uterus. Some of the cells that make up the embryo break away and implant deeper into the uterine wall. Here, these cells develop into a disc-like organ filled with blood vessels. In the second trimester, this organ (the placenta) will take over progesterone production from the corpus luteum and provide other nutrients to your baby as well.

As your pregnancy progresses, your placenta will grow. Small capillaries will turn into large blood vessels with the ability to transport oxygen and nutrients to your baby. Your placenta will have developed all of its necessary components by the twelfth week of pregnancy, but will continue to grow as your baby does.

13 Womb Gas Exchange

A developing fetus needs oxygen to carry out basic bodily functions. Since a fetus is unable to use their own lungs to breathe while in the womb, they rely on the placenta for the exchange of gasses. One of the main functions of the placenta is to allow oxygen present in the mother’s blood to transfer to the fetus, while also allowing the carbon dioxide to be transferred back to the mother’s blood where it can then be expelled.

By the late stages of pregnancy, the placenta can contain around 120 square feet of gas-exchanging tissue. If the flow of maternal and fetal blood through the placenta is interrupted at any point during pregnancy serious complications can arise.

12 Placental Nutrient Supply

Since your fetus is unable to obtain nutrients through ingesting food while in your womb, they rely on you. The placenta supplies the fetus with all necessary nutrients prior to birth. Interestingly, during the early stages of pregnancy, the placenta actually produces some nutrients for your baby. Fats and carbohydrates are produced by the placenta and transferred through fetal blood to nourish the baby.

Once your pregnancy progresses, your baby will obtain all of their nutrients from you, as your blood passes through the placenta. Water moves freely across the placenta into the fetal blood supply, which aids in growth and metabolism. Additionally, proteins and vitamins are easily transferred from mother to child through the placenta.

11 Important Hormone Production

Although most hormones produced by the placenta are not directly needed by the fetus itself, they are necessary for the mother’s body to function properly. The placenta produces estrogen, progesterone, placental growth hormone and placental lactogen.

Placenta produces progesterone helps the uterine lining thicken and grow, while also stimulating the production of nutrients needed by the embryo in early pregnancy. Growth hormone and placental lactogen stimulate the mother’s body to produce excess nutrients for her growing fetus. All of these hormones are necessary for a healthy mother and subsequent healthy pregnancy.

10 Placentl Infection Protection


The placenta transfers antibodies from the mother’s blood into fetal circulation. This protects the fetus from infection. Different antibodies are transferred in different ways to the fetus. Some of the most important antibodies move across the placenta in small quantities, which gives the fetus something called passive immunity.

Passive immunity is achieved since the antibodies are transferred to the fetus without any effort from the fetal immune system itself. This type of immunity is important, as fetal immune systems are underdeveloped. Although the placenta provides protection from some infectious diseases, your fetus is still susceptible to others, such as chicken pox.

9 What Affects Placental Health?

There are many factors that can affect the health of your placenta, some of which you can control, while others you cannot. Individuals with high blood pressure, substance abuse problems, or abdominal trauma are more likely to experience placental problems.

Some other factors that can negatively affect your placental health include:

  • Maternal Age: Women over the age of 40 are more likely to experience problems with their placenta.
  • Twin or Multiple Pregnancy: Women pregnant with twins or multiples are more likely to experience certain placental problems.
  • Previous Uterine Surgery: Previous C-sections or fibroid removal surgery can increase your chances of experiencing problems.
  • Previous Placental Problems: Women who experienced placental problems in a previous pregnancy will likely experience them again.
  • Blood Clotting Disorders: Women who suffer from a condition that either prevents blood clotting or increases its likelihood of clotting, are at risk for placental problems.
  • Amniotic Sac Rupture: Women whose amniotic sac leaks or breaks before labor are at risk of experiencing certain placental problems.

8 Common Symptoms of Placental Problems

Since there are a number of different problems that can arise with the placenta, symptoms will not always be the same. However, there are a few common symptoms associated with placental issues that you should be aware of in case they happen to you.

The most common symptoms include; vaginal bleeding, uterus pain, and back pain. Uterine contractions that do not stop and abnormal fetal heart rate can also be indications that there is something wrong with your placenta. If you experience any of these symptoms contact your doctor immediately as you may have one of the placental conditions described below.

7 Placenta Problems: Placental Abruption

Placental abruption is a serious condition where the placenta partially or completely separates from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery. This condition occurs in roughly 1 in 150 pregnancies. Common symptoms of placental abruption include vaginal bleeding, pain, and/or cramping.

Placental abruption before delivery can deprive your baby of oxygen and nutrients. If placental abruption goes undiagnosed, it can increase the likelihood that your child will experience growth problems down the line. If not treated, this condition can also increase the chances of premature delivery or a stillbirth.

6 Placenta Problems: Placenta Previa

Placenta previa is a condition in which your placenta is lying too low in your cervix, sitting right next to, or covering the cervix. This is condition is generally not a problem in early stages of pregnancy, but can be a cause for concern in later stages. When the placenta lies too close to the cervix later in pregnancy it can cause severe bleeding, which can lead to other complications.

The placenta actually blocks the baby’s way out for women that have complete previa (where the cervix is completely blocked by the placenta). Even for those women whose cervix isn’t completely covered, delivery via C-section is typically required. This is because as the cervix dilates the placenta can bleed profusely, causing serious complications.

5 Placenta Accreta

Placenta accreta is a condition in which the placenta attaches too deeply into the uterine wall. It can also be called placenta accreta or placenta percreta, depending on the severity of the condition. Around 1 in 2500 pregnancies will involve some form of placenta accrete.

Placenta accreta is when the placenta attaches too deeply but not deep enough to penetrate the uterine muscle. Placenta accreta occurs when the placenta attaches so deeply that it ends up penetrating the uterine muscle. Placenta percreta is the most serious form of this condition and occurs when the placenta penetrates through the uterine wall and attaches to another organ, such as the bladder.

Bleeding in the third trimester may be an indication of placenta accrete and result in a premature delivery. Although the specific cause of placenta accrete is unknown, it has been suggested that it is related to placenta previa or previous C-sections.

4 Retained Placenta

Generally, a woman will experience after birth, where the placenta is expelled after the baby is born. A retained placenta means that all or part of the placenta has stayed in the uterus, rather than being expelled. There are three main causes for retained placenta:

  • Uterine Atony: This occurs when the uterus either stops contracting or doesn’t contract enough to separate the placenta from the uterine wall.
  • Adherent Placenta: This occurs when the placenta becomes ‘stuck’ to the uterine wall. This can happen as a result of placenta accreta, mentioned above.
  • Trapped Placenta: This is when the placenta separates from the uterine wall but becomes trapped behind a semi or prematurely closed cervix.

There are various ways to deal with a retained placenta so if you are at risk for the condition you may want to discuss treatment options with your doctor or midwife.

3 Risk Reduction

Unfortunately most placental problems are hard to prevent. However, there are a few steps you can take to promote a healthy pregnancy such as quitting smoking or doing drugs. A few other steps you can take for a healthy pregnancy include:

  • Visit Your Doctor: It’s important to make all required doctor appointments during your pregnancy so that if an issue arises it can be dealt with as early as possible.
  • Manage Health Conditions: If you have pre-existing conditions that may negatively affect your prenatal health, such as high blood pressure work closely with your doctor to mitigate complications.
  • Reconsider C-section: Talk to your doctor if you are planning on pursuing an elective C-section as it can have complications for your current pregnancy or future ones.

2 How is the Placenta Delivered?

Women who give birth vaginally will deliver the placenta vaginally, while women who deliver via C-section will have the placenta removed during the procedure. Delivering the placenta is often called the third stage of labor. Once you give birth to your baby you will continue to have mild contractions. These contractions are your body’s way of expelling the placenta.

Your doctor may ask you to perform one extra push to deliver the placenta, which typically comes out with a gush of blood. This can happen anywhere from five to thirty minutes after the birth of your child. Your doctor will need to examine the placenta to ensure that it is intact. Any placenta left in the uterus can cause bleeding or infection so it is important that it is removed in its entirety.

1 Should I Eat My Placenta?

Some celebrity moms have brought the controversial topic of eating your own placenta (most in the form of pills) back into the spotlight. Although it’s not a new concept it’s common for new mom’s to consider the process. Most women that choose to eat their placenta do so as a way to increase their energy and avoid postpartum depression.

It makes sense that some mothers would want to eat the placenta since it is the nutrient-rich sac that has nourished and grown their healthy baby. The placenta is especially rich in iron, B vitamins, and the important postnatal hormones, estrogen, and progesterone.

Despite its growing popularity, there is not much scientific evidence to suggest that ingesting the placenta benefits humans. Talk to your doctor and your hospital if this interests you since you’ll need to arrange to keep your placenta in advance.

Sources: Healthline, American Pregnancy, WhatToExpect, MayoClinic

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