The extra organ

Amid the many wonders of pregnancy, the placenta plays a uniquely indispensable role in the health of mom and baby.
Pregnancy brings with it a host of fascinating changes, including development of the placenta. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

We all strive for lifestyles that will keep our organs healthy and strong, seeing as how we’re going to need those parts to function properly throughout our lives.

Moms are in the unique position of possessing an organ that’s temporary—the placenta. It’s considered an organ, but a disposable one!

The placenta needs to stay in tip-top shape throughout the pregnancy, as it provides oxygen and essential nutrients to the growing baby.

Formation of the placenta begins at the start of the pregnancy. After the baby is born, the placenta is no longer needed and the mother’s body simply discards the organ.

In addition to providing vital support to the developing baby throughout the pregnancy, the placenta also acts as a gland that secretes hormones, including:

  • Human chorionic gonadotropin—helps produce estrogen and progesterone in the first trimester.
  • Estrogen—helps increase blood flow and growth of the uterus and breasts
  • Progesterone—helps support pregnancy
  • Human placental lactogen—speeds up the new mom’s metabolism

Let’s take a closer look at exactly what this organ is and how it serves many important functions.

Where is it?

The placenta is in the uterus. One side is attached to the uterus and the other faces the baby. These are sometimes referred to as “Dirty Duncan” and “Shiny Schultz.”

Dirty Duncan is the side attached to the uterus, and it’s so-named because it’s rough-looking. Shiny Schultz, the side facing the baby, is smooth.

Typically the placenta is low in the uterus at the start of pregnancy. This may be noted in an early ultrasound. They do move, however, in a process called placental migration—the organ grows up and away from the cervix as the uterus grows larger.

What does it do?

The placenta is baby’s food and sanitary system, so to speak. By way of the umbilical cord, the placenta feeds baby and gets rid of waste. As mom’s body breaks down what she eats, the nutrients head into her blood and then into the umbilical cord, which feeds directly to baby’s bloodstream.

The placenta has one final job as it leaves mom’s body. When it separates from the uterus at birth, the placenta signals the body to increase another hormone—prolactin. This is involved in milk production.

Every minute of your pregnancy, your body sends a pint of blood to the placenta, which goes to baby. Amazing, right?

Another interesting fact: The placenta isn’t under the control of mom’s brain or nervous system.

Can problems arise?

There are some situations that can affect the placenta and how well it performs. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Advanced maternal age
  • Twins or additional pregnancies
  • Previous placental problems or uterine surgery
  • Substance abuse

Your placenta can encounter a few problems during pregnancy.

One of them is placenta previa, in which the placenta stays low in the uterus, over the cervix. If you experience this, you will likely need a C-section because the placenta needs to provide oxygen to the baby until the baby is born. Placenta previa occurs in 0.4 percent of pregnancies.

Another issue is placental abruption. This is where the placenta prematurely pulls away from the inside of the uterus. This is what caused one of my babies to be born at 32 weeks. We never did figure out what caused the abruption. About 1 percent of pregnancies will experience this.

Though rare, placental accreta can also occur. This happens when the placenta grows too deeply into the uterine wall. The risk for this increases with uterine scars. This occurs in just 0.3 percent of pregnancies.

Also, a retained placenta is when the placenta doesn’t detach after birth within 60 minutes.

What can I do?

Here are some things you can do to keep your placenta healthy throughout pregnancy:

  • When possible, keep blood pressure under control
  • Avoid smoking and illegal drugs
  • Discuss elective C-sections with your provider
  • Keep your OB-GYN appointments

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