Placenta Teddy Bears, Meals Stir Debate, Revulsion

Some women eat the placenta, but few have tried turning it into a keepsake.

November 10, 2009, 10:58 AM

Nov. 10, 2009— -- After the baby is born and the cooing in the delivery room begins, parents may do a variety of things with the placenta -- maybe take a picture, poke it a bit, or just divert their eyes and let the nurse take it away.

Whatever parents do, it probably wouldn't match London-based designer Alex Green's idea of turning the baby's placenta into a teddy bear.

"It just looks like a brown leather teddy bear and you get closer and say, hmm what strange leather is that," said Green.

Green claims he was motivated to make the bears to shake up how people think of placenta.

"I was very interested in how it was discarded unceremoniously as medical waste, why it's discarded and how we could bring it back…" said Green, who thought placentas deserved a symbolic treatment whether they're saved or not. "It was really about provoking a debate about placentas and how we treat them."

Indeed placentas get more respect outside of the United Kingdom or United States. The placenta is still eaten in some Chinese medicinal practices for strength, and buried in other religious and cultural traditions. Green said he was inspired after reading that ancient Egyptians revered the pharaoh's placenta so much they put it on a pole like a flag for public display.

Green started making his placenta teddy bears in January 2008, experimenting with an animal's placenta first to perfect the technique. The placenta must first be cured with salt to kill bacteria and remove water. Green then softens the dried organ with a mixture of eggs and tannins.

Once he cuts and sews the bears, Green fills them with brown rice. Most end up to be 5 inches tall.

"It's more heavy than you'd imagine -- they're more the sort of thing that you'd stick on a mantel pieces," said Green. "It feels soft, somewhere between leather and suede but it's much more flexible than leather -- it's bendy."

Time will tell if the placenta teddy bear will ever turn from statement to tradition. After an exhibition this October parent blogs have picked up on Green's teddy bears and largely dubbed them gross.

"Of course a lot of people feel it's grotesque," said Green. "But, quite a few women have expressed interest in making them."

What Some Women Do With the Placenta

Even if placenta teddy bears don't catch on, midwives around the U.S. said Green might have put his finger on a new trend of repurposing the placenta.

From Missouri to San Francisco midwifes and hospitals are now helping women do a variety of old and new traditions with the placenta.

Midwifes say women are especially inclined to do something meaningful in the case of a home birth.

"It's more like 'we have this placenta what are we going to do with it?'" said Tina Williams, a childbirth educator in Springfield, Mo.

More often than not, Williams said women in her area bury the placenta and plant a tree.

"Then there's the symbolism with the tree growing," she said. "I've seen pictures of the kid at 3 or 4 years old standing by the tree, and that's their placenta tree."

In hospital births, midwives say the decision to release the placenta depends on the hospital's policy or sometimes the doctor's decision.

On the West coast, some nurses and midwifes say each year a handful of women actually ask to take the placenta home to eat it.

"Even just the last six months or so it's increased," said Maggie Pollak, a nurse at the University of California San Francisco Birthing Center. "There's now something new where they freeze dry it and put it into pills -- it's something that's supposed to help them with post partum depression."

One of those placentas easily could have been delivered to Laura Perez, a bay-area woman who processes placentas for mothers who want to ingest them over time as homeopathic medicine.

"I was really surprised, I thought there would be more home birth folks into it but it actually turns out half and half: half have been hospital birth moms, half have not," Perez said of her 2-year-old side business, in which she processes two to seven placentas a month.

For $250 Perez with perform the laborious process of "encapsulating" a placenta. First Perez will wash it, then steam it, then cut it into smaller pieces and dehydrate it enough until it can be pulverized and put into capsules. Perez, who is studying to be a midwife, offers payment plans or trade deals for women who can't pay.

Why Eat the Placenta?

Perez said the reasons why a woman would want to eat a placenta vary from wanting to "restore hormone balance" after pregnancy [which is not scientifically proven to work], to gaining strength to restoring a woman's qi that is lost during childbirth, according to Chinese medicine.

However, Perez hasn't helped someone who wanted to turn the placenta into a keepsake.

As for Green, he has no big plans to make a placenta teddy bear business. However, he said he's noticed the criticism of his bears.

"They're quite soft, you can give them a hug," said Green. "Maybe I should make it cuter."