The lotus position
The umbilical cord is usually cut straight after birth, but some parents
are taking a different approach - keeping the placenta attached until
it naturally falls away. Viv Groskop speaks to advocates of 'lotus
A newborn baby. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty
her daughter Ember was born 13 months ago, Gina Cox-Roberts, a natal
hypnotherapist from Telford, had an overwhelming sense that the placenta
was part of the baby's body. "The placenta and the child came from the
same cell," she says. "Her placenta was as much a part of her as her
hands or her heart." So why cut the umbilical cord? Instead Cox-Roberts
decided to go ahead with a "lotus birth" - a practice in which the
placenta stays attached to the baby until the umbilical cord
disintegrates naturally a few days later.
Cox-Roberts believes that this approach - which followed an
uncomplicated home birth attended by an independent midwife - gave her
baby the opportunity to "let go" of the cord and placenta in her own
time. "After all, her entire existence until the moment of birth was
next to this placenta, which she would snuggle up to. The placenta had
been her companion, her plaything: its sounds had lulled her to sleep.
Here she was in this alien world and we were going to cut away the one
thing she knew. Why do we feel we have a right to do that?"
Thanks to the rise of online home birthing groups, lotus birth is
enjoying a revival. The expression comes from Buddhism - meaning "holy,
intact child" - and while the practice was once common in Bali and
various aboriginal cultures, its origins are uncertain. Now it has the
seal of approval from French birthing guru Michel Odent, who has said
that "we need to relearn what birth can be like when it is not disturbed
by the cultural milieu. We need a reference point from which we should
try not to deviate too much. Lotus birth is such a reference point."
In Australia in particular, where there is a growing home birth
support network, the practice is hotly discussed. There is a book on the
topic, Lotus Birth by Shivam Rachana, and the movement even has a
poster girl in Dr Sarah Buckley, a GP with four children between the
ages of eight and 18, three of them lotus births.
Mothers who take this approach often personify the placenta, treating
it almost like a baby itself: "Be nice, use warm water to wash it!"
advises one website. Cox-Roberts feels that treating the placenta with
respect makes the transition from womb to world much easier for the
baby. "After two and a half days, Ember's cord fell away at the navel
and she had a perfect belly button," she says. "It was a little bit red
but not sore or open. It looked exactly like a baby's belly button when a
cord stump [the remnant of a cut umbilical cord] comes away - and that
can take up to 10 days."
She says that it is not inconvenient to carry the cord, placenta and
baby around together. "We rinsed off the placenta so it was as clean as
possible. We sprinkled sea salt over it - it's a chunk of meat quite
like liver and has the potential to go off. We had some lavender
essential oil to drip on it too in case it got smelly, but it never did.
We wrapped it in a terry nappy, then wrapped the baby and the placenta
up together in a sleeping bag. Every 12 hours we changed the nappy and
added more salt. It worked fine." She and her partner Rae, a
psychologist, are keeping the placenta in the freezer until they move
house - then they will plant it beneath a tree.
Unsurprisingly, lotus birth is a minority home birth activity, says
Mervi Jokinen of the Royal College of Midwives, although there is no
reason you couldn't ask for it at a hospital birth. "The people who do
this are happy to see the experience as a life event and a natural
thing. It's difficult to make a clinical comment on this because there
are no studies." Jokinen is not in a position to vouch for its total
safety, she says, since, "The placenta is a blood organ and bacteria can
set in quickly with a blood organ."
The usual process in a birth, of course, is to cut the umbilical cord
and then deliver the placenta as quickly as possible. In the majority
of today's hospital births an injection of syntometrine is administered
once the cord has been cut, to speed up contractions and ensure that the
placenta is delivered within minutes, minimising the risk of bleeding.
If you don't have this injection, the placenta comes out at its own rate
- which usually takes about an hour (in Cox-Roberts' case, it took
Jokinen says that the practice of cutting the cord and administering
syntometrine developed because it lessened the risk of post-partum
haemorrhage, which was once the most common cause of death in
childbirth. "This reduced the maternal mortality rate so rapidly that it
was adopted everywhere." she says. Natural birth advocates - including
lotus birthers - argue that this is no longer necessary: now that women
are healthier, have smaller families and are less likely to be anaemic,
there is no reason to adopt these methods as standard.
Lisa Schuring, an Australian who runs the Joyous Birth website, has
two children, aged three and five, both of them lotus births. She sees
the approach as safe and sensible, and says there was no way she was
going to sever her babies' connection to their placenta. "My first child
used to sleep with her fingers curled around the cord. The cord was
dried and ready to come off after three days but she kept holding on to
it until about seven days after birth. Then she pulled it off herself.
She also did not like anyone but me touching the placenta."
Buckley says there are health benefits to lotus birth: "The baby
receives an extra 50-100ml of their own blood, known as the placental
transfusion, which contains iron, red cells, stem cells and other
nutrients, which will benefit the baby through the first year." Lotus
birthers often talk about the importance of the "babymoon": the
post-birth period when the mother and baby should be together
exclusively, bonding and cocooning. Lotus birth "is an ideal start",
says Buckley, "because it slows everyone down: with a lotus birth, you
can't take your new baby shopping". (Or rather, you could, but the
placenta would have to come as well.) This is why some see lotus birth
as a way of reclaiming birth as an exclusively mother-and-baby
experience. It precludes the cutting of the cord, for instance, which is
one common way of involving fathers in the birth, and Schuring says
that lotus birth mothers tend to get their babies completely to
themselves for several days. "You can avoid the "pass the baby around"
thing with visitors," she says. "People are usually put off by the cord
and the placenta."
Beyond the bonding, some argue that the best thing about lotus birth
is that it gives you more time to decide what to do with the placenta:
bury it, eat it or freeze it. The resurgence of lotus birth coincides
with a rising interest in the placenta as a nutrient, with proponents
claiming that it wards off post-natal depression. Ten years ago Hugh
Fearnley-Whittingstall was accused of cannibalism when he fried a
placenta with shallots and garlic and spread it on foccaccia. Now,
however, there are thousands of recipes online for placenta smoothie,
bolognese and pizza, although most prefer to eat it the old-fashioned
way: raw. Celebrity placenta fans include Tom Cruise ("very nutritious")
and Matthew McConaughey (who planted it beneath a tree). There is even a
placenta blog: "Thanks for helping to spread the placenta love!"
Most bizarrely of all, in the wake of lotus birth another new trend
has sprung up in the US: placenta encapsulation services. This involves
the placenta being baked, ground into a powder and converted into pills
to be swallowed. One website offering this service suggests that, "When
you have recovered from childbirth, you can freeze the capsules and save
them for menopause." Now there's a treat to look forward to.