The placenta: What it is and how it works

The placenta: What it is and how it works

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One of the many remarkable things about pregnancy is that you're not only growing a new human being, but also an entirely new organ – the placenta. And pretty much everything your baby needs to develop and thrive flows through it.

The placenta is a pancake-shaped organ that attaches to the wall of your uterus and connects to your baby though the umbilical cord. By the end of pregnancy, it grows to be about 9 inches in diameter and about an inch thick at the center.

What the placenta does

  • It delivers oxygen and nutrients (such as vitamins, glucose, and water) from your body to the baby's, and processes the waste products from your baby.
  • It produces the hormones that help your baby grow and develop.
  • It allows antibodies to pass to your baby from your bloodstream. These antibodies protect against certain bacterial infections and viral illnesses, like diphtheria and measles, until after your baby is born and old enough to get his first vaccinations.

How the placenta functions

The placenta connects to the umbilical cord through thousands of microscopic "fingers" of tissue (chorionic villi) containing a network of blood vessels. The villi are formed by 6 weeks of pregnancy, and your blood fills the spaces around them by 12 weeks. When your blood comes in contact with the villi, nutrients are exchanged for waste through the villi walls.

The villi also act as a filter, preventing some viruses and bacteria from reaching your baby, while allowing molecules of everything you ingest as well as antibodies and gases to pass through.

Myths about the placenta

  • There's no reason to pass on spicy foods. They may cause you heartburn, but there's no evidence that babies in the womb are irritated by spiciness.
  • Eating peanut butter won't cause your baby to develop a peanut allergy. According to the latest research, eating nuts and peanut butter during pregnancy may actually promote immune system tolerance and make your baby less likely to be allergic.
  • Drinking cold water won't harm your baby's lungs or cause a miscarriage. Nor will it "wake up" your baby and increase fetal movement. (If you notice that your baby is moving around less than usual, let your healthcare provider know right away.)

Harmful substances that cross the placenta

Along with all the good things that are transferred to your baby, some harmful ones can cross the placenta too. These include alcohol, nicotine, and illegal drugs as well as some medications.

No safe level has been established for alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and experts recommend not drinking any amount while you're expecting. The same goes for smoking and using illegal drugs. Although marijuana is legal in some states, experts recommend against using it during pregnancy. Discuss any supplements or over-the-counter or prescription drugs you may need or want to take with your healthcare provider.

Although the placenta acts as a barrier to most bacteria, some viruses and small bacteria can cross it. Many have no effect, but others can be harmful to a developing baby.

Delivering the placenta

A few minutes after your baby is born, the placenta detaches from the wall of your uterus and is delivered through your vagina.

You'll have a few contractions, but this stage of childbirth usually lasts only about five to 10 minutes and feels more like menstrual cramps than labor pains. (If you're having a c-section, your doctor will remove the placenta manually.)

If you want, and if you've made prior arrangements with your provider, you can save the placenta. Some women believe that encapsulating and eating the placenta after birth helps them recover faster, though there's no scientific evidence to support this claim.

Also note that there are potential risks associated with consuming the placenta, including infection and heavy metal contamination. Be sure to discuss this topic with your provider if it's something you're considering.

What you can do before you get pregnant

Get vaccinated. Some viruses can cross the placenta. Rubella, for example, can cause serious birth defects if you become infected during pregnancy. That's why it's important to make sure all of your vaccines are up to date before you get pregnant.

What you can do during pregnancy

Here are a few things you can do to promote a healthy placenta and a healthy baby:

  • Go to all your prenatal checkups and work with your healthcare provider to manage any health conditions, such as high blood pressure, which can cause problems with the placenta.
  • Use caution when taking prescribed and over-the-counter medications during pregnancy because most cross the placenta. Although many medications are considered safe for your baby, a few are known to cause birth defects. And for many drugs, there simply is not enough research to know their effects on an unborn baby. Your provider can help you determine whether the benefits of a certain drug outweigh the risks in your case.
  • Get all recommended vaccinations during pregnancy, including a flu shot and a Tdap vaccine to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). Both the flu and pertussis can be life-threatening for babies, and getting these vaccines while you're pregnant enables antibodies to pass through the placenta that will protect your newborn from catching these illnesses.
  • Don't smoke or use drugs. Placental problems, like placental abruption, are more common in women who smoke, use illegal drugs (like cocaine and heroin), or abuse medications (like opioids).
  • Talk to your provider about the risks before choosing to deliver by c-section if there's no medical reason to do so. Each c-section you have increases your risk of serious complications in future pregnancies, including placenta previa and placenta accreta.

Learn more:

Watch the video: Πως λειτουργούν τα παυσίπονα στον ανθρώπινο οργανισμό (August 2022).

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