Placenta – Your baby’s first organ

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Every parent stumbles upon this question one time or another — what and how do I feed my newborn?

Natural or artificial nipples ? Mashed yams or Blueberry-Apple-Spinach Puree? Cheerios or cut-up fires ?

You will spend hours finding “organic only” ingredients. These are big decisions, after all.

What your baby feeds on is going to shape the way your baby grows.

Here’s something that will surprise you.

Your baby has been feeding long before you started thinking about your baby’s nutrition.

I know what you’re thinking.

Hah! That’s not me. I was reading up on what to feed my baby in the first trimester itself.

What if I told you that was still late? By about 3 months or so.

The right time to think about your baby’s nutrition is when you are trying to conceive!

Sounds exaggerated, doesn’t it?

In this article, you will get a glimpse of

  1. Your baby’s first meals in the womb
  2. Unique ways in which your baby feeds
  3. The way your baby manipulates you
  4. The placenta protects your baby
  5. 10 tips for a healthy placenta

Your baby’s first meal starts in the womb

Within a week after conception, an organ starts developing in your uterus: The Placenta

Placenta feeds baby in womb. It's fully developed by 12 weeks.
At 12 weeks the placenta is fully developed and takes the form of a disk. That’s why placenta derives its name after the Greek word plakos, which means “flat cake” because of its appearance.

A healthy placenta is the foundation for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

This unusual organ has two important roles:

  1. Deliver everything your baby needs to grow. Glucose, vitamins, calcium, oxygen, etc. It delivers a laundry list of antibodies too.
  2. Clear up all the waste your baby creates. Things like carbon dioxide, urine and metabolic wastes.

Placenta – The Tree of Life :

Roots grow first from the seed, before any other part.

Placenta attaches to the uterus like roots of a plant.
Placenta attaches to the uterus like roots

The roots attach to mother earth to hold ground firmly, and absorb nutrients and water. The seed-root-earth analogy is a perfect way to visualize a baby-placenta-mother relation.

One side of the placenta attaches to the baby via an umbilical cord. The other side is densely branched and attaches to the uterine wall just like the roots of a plant.

The placenta is where you are most literally bonded to your baby!

A word of caution to future Dads: If you’re new to all this and have just started reading up on baby stuff, this could as well be your first test. Your partner might be wired up to not find this gross, but you might be feeling a bit queasy. It’s alright. Just remind yourself that you too once relied on the placenta when you were in your mom’s uterus. Oh, did that make it worse? Sorry about that 🙂!

Did you know?
Made from fetal cells, placenta is the first organ any mammal ever makes.

Placenta is key to the rise of the mammals

A life-changing adaptation unfolded millions of years ago. Some creatures stopped laying eggs and instead gave birth to live young ones. These creatures were the progenitors of nearly all modern mammals. The humble placenta was the key evolutionary innovation that made live birth possible.

Did you know?
Fossil evidence shows that the first placental mammals evolved between 163 million & 157 million years ago during the Jurassic Period.

Instead of laying eggs and leaving it to the mercy of predators, the mother’s womb was safer. It provided a more controlled environment for development of the embryo.

Still finding it weird to learn more about the “P” word? If it weren’t for the placenta, you might have been someone’s breakfast!

The exchange happens without blood to blood contact.

Placenta is unlike any other organ. It connects two genetically distinct organisms, yet separates them.

The placenta makes sure that blood from the mother and the fetus never mix. Nutrients and oxygen pass over exclusively by diffusion.

If the mother’s and fetus’s blood mixed, it could be deadly for both. For one, if incompatible blood groups mix, the body’s immune system reacts by forming antibodies to destroy the new blood cells.

Placenta mechanism

A placenta consists of a large mass of blood vessels from both the mother and fetus. The maternal and fetal vessels are close together but separated by tiny spaces. The mother’s and fetus’s blood can exchange substances across their capillary walls without the blood actually mixing.

Placenta transfers nutrients without direct blood to blood contact.
Placenta transfers nutrients without direct blood to blood contact.

The hormones in you stimulate the inside layer of your uterus to grow the blood vessel larger. This facilitates effective exchange.  

Your blood pressure forces blood around the placenta so that nutrients and anti-bodies for immunity pass to your baby. 

At the same time, the baby’s waste products pass to your circulatory system for disposal. 

An umbilical cord connects the fetus to the placenta. This tube contains two arteries and a vein. They shuttle the blood between the baby and the placenta.

Did you know?
Despite the small size of the placenta, the surface area available through the placental interface for exchange is approximately the size of one bedroom house. 

It is easy to derive that, effective  functioning of placenta depends on surface area available for exchange of nutrients.

Smoking or having uncontrolled hypertension or diabetes can cause your placenta to calcify. This limits the area available for proper exchange between mother and fetus. 

Your baby manipulates you!

Placenta, is your baby’s first organ.

That’s right. Placenta is not a  maternal organ.

But placenta reprograms the mother physiology to help in developing the fetus. The placenta serves as a central regulator for the mother and baby.

It controls metabolism and hormone secretion that will help in the development of baby. It also preps the mother for childbirth and childcare.

Mother in different moods: nausea, food cravings and exhaustion.
You are on a roller coaster ride, Mama!

That nausea you experience, the sudden urge to eat something sour, the mood swings that you undergo, the weird combination of foods that you crave and your urge to take a nap whenever you get a chance – all this is your baby getting its way!

Did you know?
You would have got compliments from your friends – “I see the pregnancy glow!”, it is the estrogen hormone at work. And it’s the placenta that secretes estrogen.

Hormone changes during pregnancy

Your baby manipulates you through your hormones. That’s how your baby gets whatever it wants.

Estrogen helps in vascularisation or formation of blood vessels. Hence, you have more “rosy” skin. Estrogen production peaks right before birth. It also preps the breasts for milk production by enlarging the milk ducts.

The journey of the fertilized egg from the fallopian tube to the uterus is the most dangerous trip any human being ever takes. The egg has to implant to the uterine wall for a successful pregnancy.

Progesterone is a hormone that helps in maintaining the inner layer of uterus. This helps in supporting the developing embryo.

Ovaries in the women produce this hormone initially. Once the placenta is fully developed, it takes over and makes this hormone.

The morning sickness that you experience in the first trimester is because of hCG(Human Chorionic Gonadotropin). hCG is a placental hormone.

Did you know?
The pregnancy test kits base their tests on the presence or absence of hCG in the urine to show a positive.

Initially, hCG is produced by the cells that surround the growing human embryo; these cells will eventually go on to form the placenta. hCG also stimulates the formation of estrogen and progesterone, until the placental cells can do so by themselves.

There is a high demand on resources as expected because you are now growing a baby from one tiny cell. Your metabolic rate increases. The human placental lactogen increases this rate. It also helps in milk production.

So to-be-mamas, your baby has already got its way. Your baby is smart and is modifying its environment through the placenta. Listen to your body. Take a nap when you feel tired. Drink enough water. Snack with some fruits when you are hungry. Take a stroll if you feel like!

Placenta: The balance between the mom’s immune reaction and development of the invader – your baby!

Placenta : The shield against the mother's immune system
Placenta : The shield against the mother’s immune system

If a virus or a bacteria attack us, our body reacts by releasing antibodies. These reactions help in expelling the infection or foreign bodies. This is the job of our immune system.

Now, fetus which gets half of its genetic material from the father, should be perceived as intruder! Yet in pregnancy, the mother’s body shifts from rebel mode to ally mode. The mother nurtures, feeds, and makes peace with what it should perceive as a foreign invader : the fetus. 

Did you know?
The immune system is very ancient. The ability to distinguish self from nonself dates back to more than half a billion years ago!

How does the maternal immune system tolerate the fetus and the placenta ?

To prevent rejection, the immune cells in the womb are suppressed.

In a way, you can consider pregnancy as an immunosuppressed state. This might ring a bell to you about why your OBGYN told you to avoid eating raw food outside of home or avoid overly crowded public spaces.

The fertilized egg produces a special enzyme that suppresses the mom’s immune reaction, preventing her from fighting with the cells of fetus. Once the placenta is formed, it helps maintain the truce between these two potential adversaries. 

Hence the placenta has a unique ability to create immunological tolerance.

Mom’s First Gift : Immunity

A baby’s immune system isn’t fully developed before birth. It needs a hand from mom. It’s the mother who passes her own immune-system warriors, called antibodies, through the placenta. This is called passive immunity because the fetus doesn’t make antibodies itself but accepts the mother’s.

A fetus’s immune system doesn’t start developing on its own until 9 weeks and isn’t up and running until week fourteen. The reason for that delay is to help the fetus tolerate mom and not fight from day 1. 

Neurological development – Frontier research in understanding the role of placenta

Researchers have discovered the role of placenta that helps in neurological development of fetus.

In a study published by British researchers showed that when a mother mouse is deprived of food, the placenta takes over, breaking down its own tissue to nourish the fetal brain. Isn’t this fascinating?

Scientists at the University of Southern California’s Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute (ZNI) reported that it is the placenta—not the mother—that provides the hormone serotonin to the fetus’s forebrain early in development. Because hormones play an essential role in brain wiring, even before they function as neurotransmitters in the brain. Hence placental abnormalities could directly influence neurological development.

10 Tips for a healthy placenta

Follow these tips for a healthy placenta. Mother with healthy placenta has a balanced outlook.

Several things have show to contribute to optimal placental function. Follow the basics and you should be on your way to healthy pregnancy.

  1. Don’t diet during pregnancy. You are responsible for feeding your baby.
  2. Get your extra calories with extra protein. Avoid empty calories as they will add to your weight.
  3. Be active. Take regular walks. Don’t exercise excessively. Do some deep breathing exercises as they increase the supply of oxygen to your baby.
  4. Don’t smoke or drink. Cut your caffeine intake. Everything you eat, either good or bad passes to your baby.
  5. Avoid exposure to high altitudes. Traveling to higher elevations exposes your body — pregnant or not — to lower air pressure and leads to lower oxygen levels in the blood. As a result, your tissues can become deprived of oxygen, a condition known as hypoxia. 
  6. Avoid exposure to potentially toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
  7. Your blood pressure should be within the normal limits. A mother’s blood pressure greatly influences how blood, nutrients, oxygen, and immune cells reach the fetus and also affect the surface area available for efficient exchanges to occur.
  8. Just Chill. I know, you hear this all the time. But why does everybody advice you to not take stress ? Stress whether pregnant or not, weakens your immune system. When you are pregnant, you are already in immunosuppressed state. So you do not want to add to the burden. You also run the risk of getting high BP with increase in stress.
  9. Stay updated on your immunizations three to four months before you get pregnant. During pregnancy, your health provider will avoid any vaccines  as you are in an immunosuppressed state.
  10. Best position to sleep : Lie on your sides. Ofcourse, sleeping on your stomach is out of question. But avoid lying flat on your back too. In this position, the weight of your uterus compresses the blood vessels that are feeding the placenta. Lying on your left side is better than lying on your right side because it allows more blood flow to the uterus.

Conclusion

This life-sustaining organ develops in a short period, nourishes the fetus, and orchestrates its own death at the time of baby’s birth. Placenta is delivered few minutes after the birth of your baby.

In so many ways, placenta is the unsung hero of pregnancy!

Congratulations expecting Dads! You have managed to finish reading the article! Great work, you just passed your first test!

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