During your pregnancy, you might not give a lot of thought to the placenta that gives your baby life. It’s just there, silently doing its job and chugging away at providing nutrients and oxygen to the little one growing inside of you.
But now, new research is shedding light on the important role that the placenta plays during pregnancy — and in the health of your newborn.
The placenta is actually a fully-functioning separate organ in a woman’s body that arises solely in pregnancy and is delivered, on its own, after the birth of the baby. It’s actually pretty incredible when you think about it, because how often does the body just spring up and create a whole new organ?
It starts to form at two weeks and is fully formed by 18 to 20 weeks into the pregnancy. At delivery it weighs as much as one pound. The placenta does so many things for your developing baby that it’s hard to know where to even start. Not only does it supply your baby with its own blood supply, oxygen and nutrients, but it also filters waste products from the baby, protects the baby from harmful bacteria and passes on antibodies. The organ does most of its work through the umbilical cord, which is attached to the placenta, but also grows tiny hair-like extensions that attach to the wall of the uterus for even more oxygen and nutrient exchange action. Oh, and it makes all those pregnancy hormones that make us feel super fantastic.
OK, so the placenta isn’t exactly pretty, but up until now, scientists haven’t really focused on looking more closely at what the placenta does beyond its face value. In fact, the placenta was once thought to be sterile, a little island unto itself doing the hard work without any real credit.
Now, a study that is part of an exploration of the importance that microbes play in our bodies has found that the placenta plays host to an entire world of bacteria that contribute to an infant’s health, especially in his or her stomach flora. There has been new and emerging research on the importance of our gut health to our overall health, and theories surrounding a direct gut-brain link.
The research is still in the early stages, but scientists suspect that the bacteria in the placenta play a role in developing the bacteria in a baby’s stomach and intestines, setting the stage for a lifetime of gut health. Doctors have previously suspected that babies pick up their stomach flora from the vaginal canal through the birth process, but when they tried to match a mother’s vaginal bacteria to those in the baby’s intestines, they found that they were not similar at all.
Taking a closer look, they finally pinpointed the placenta, which they discovered is made up of about 10 percent bacteria. The findings help support the theory that C-section babies can still have healthy digestive systems (because the placenta would supply their bacteria) and that harmful bacterium in the placenta may be a trigger for premature labor.
The study also raises the important question of antibiotics — if the delicate nature of bacteria on the placenta can so drastically affect a newborn and potentially trigger labor, what are all of those antibiotics given to women during pregnancy and through labor doing to their babies?
It's a question that will need attention and scientists will undoubtedly be devoting more time to researching the complex role that the placenta plays during pregnancy and infant development.
But until then, you may never look at your placenta the same way again.
That is, if you're even looking at it at all.
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