Science is here to help us understand why some mothers lick their baby’s afterbirth shortly after labor.
You may have heard of placentophagy, the controversial practice of consuming the placenta after birth. The placenta is an organ that is shared by both a mother and her growing baby that provides life-giving resources before the baby exits the womb. Well, now there’s a new practice around that we need to consider, and that’s licking the gooey mess of a recently born infant.
Images from birth photographer Ludy Siqueira of Senhoritas Fotografia captured the tender moment in which a new mom took those first gentle licks of her baby’s mucus-coated scalp. The mom is Cátia from Salvador, Brazil, and she’s licking the head of her newborn son, Kirone.
Cátia is one of the many mothers from around the world that lick their children shortly after birth. The practice might be something we see in animals frequently but apparently, it is not as uncommon in humans as once thought.
But why licking? Well, there are already plenty of studies that have proven that skin-to-skin contact is essential for a child’s development especially in the first few moments after birth. A baby that doesn’t get held runs the risk of developing a variety of mental disorders later in life. But nobody ever said that a tongue would be necessary to get the beneficial effects of holding a child.
There are a few circles (mostly associated with the placenta-eating camps) that believe that licking the afterbirth will allow the mother to consume nutrients found there. However, neuroscientist Alex Korb might have a better reason as to why licking can be a good thing:
“It turns out that being licked by the mother releases a neurotransmitter called oxytocin, which reinforces the relationship between the mother and the baby, reduces stress, and changes which part of the DNA gets read.”
So far there haven’t been any studies that prove that licking is any more effective than merely holding when it comes to getting that sweet sweet oxytocin, but brave new moms might want to venture forth into the realm of licking newborns. At the very least, it shouldn't be harmful to either baby or mom.
The rest of us can reserve our licking for lollipops and ice cream cones, and save some extra hugs for our newborn babies.