Newborn care

Lotus birth: Meet our new baby…and our placenta

The placenta is delivered after baby, but typically only one is lovingly swaddled in a blanket and snapped for social media. What is lotus birth exactly?

Lotus birth: Meet our new baby…and our placenta

Photo: Istockphoto

I wasn’t prepared for what I’d see when I first googled “lotus birth”—the practice of leaving a newborn attached to the placenta by the umbilical cord until it naturally falls off. (If you’re going to attempt the web search yourself, it’s borderline NSFW.) Think women fresh from the throes of labour, cradling their new babies to their chests, while their veiny placentas lounge casually in various receptacles nearby. You know, like Tupperware, pots and pans, cloth bags. In one case, a woman’s partner is holding the placenta in a crystal candy dish. There are also classic newborn photos, tiny babes in adorable outfits and cozy blankets, with the placenta and umbilical cord incorporated into the scene—in a basket, surrounded by a wreath, covered in flowers, formed into the shape of a heart, decorated like a Christmas tree. As you do.

With equal parts curiosity and WTF, I started reading. Lotus birthing sounds like it should be an ancient practice, but it’s really not: While there are records of lotus births, or umbilical non-severance births, during the American pioneer days, the purpose then was to protect the baby from possible infection of the open wound left by the umbilical cord. Modern-day lotus birthing, which has spiritual associations, gained popularity in the 1980s; the belief is that the placenta is a part of the baby, and it should be up to the infant as to when to discard the organ. (Some say the infant decides to discard it, I say it dries up and falls off any old time it gets brittle enough.)

“Some people think cutting the cord is violent,” says Sarah Leslie, a midwife at The Midwives’ Clinic of East York, in Toronto, who has been asked to facilitate two lotus births in her 14-year career. “There are no nerve endings in the cord, so there is no pain, but some people feel their baby and cord are a unit and that to separate them ‘prematurely’ isn’t necessary.” There’s no medical reason for lotus birthing, says Leslie, though she surmises that one benefit is the built-in excuse for mother and baby to not move much in the early days. “The time together would help with bonding and nursing,” she says, though there are certainly other ways to facilitate this type of connection.

Those who go ahead with lotus birth take measures to slow the deterioration of the placenta, sprinkling the decomposing organ with salt and herbs and wrapping the flesh in terrycloth or muslin to mitigate the unpleasant smell, and to keep the placenta preserved until the baby chooses to say sayonara in seven to 10 days. (You can even buy lotus-birth kits on Etsy, which come with a linen-lined silk bag in which to carry the placenta while your “lotus baby is transitioning,” absorbent cloths and a pre-mixed herbal blend.)

But Katrina Sawatsky, a physician with the Northeast Calgary Women’s Clinic, says there’s no way surefire way to make sure the placenta is safe for the baby once they’re both outside the womb. “It’s dying tissue once it leaves the mother, and there are serious risks to leaving the baby attached to it,” says Sawatsky. “The placenta has maternal blood and baby blood, as well as a larger surface area that has passed through the vagina and may have been exposed to bacteria. The placenta is a medium for infection.”

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) in London, in the United Kingdom, issued a statement in 2008 hammering this point home: “If left for a period of time after the birth, there is a risk of infection in the placenta which can consequently spread to the baby,” said Patrick O’Brien, the RCOG spokesperson at the time. “The placenta is particularly prone to infection as it contains blood. Within a short time after birth, once the umbilical cord has stopped pulsating, the placenta has no circulation and is essentially dead tissue.” The RCOG goes on to say that if lotus birth is practiced, the infant must be watched closely for signs of infection. (The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada is currently in the process of developing its own statement on the practice.)


Leslie says the evidence of the risks is anecdotal, given the lack of research, but that it doesn’t appear to be a common practice in Canada anyway. With both of the lotus births she attended, the parents didn’t cut off the cord, but rather it snapped in two like a dried stick, she says with a laugh.

For Sawatsky, lotus birth isn’t an option she’s even willing to offer; if she were approached to help a mother through a lotus birth, she would outright decline. “The baby can’t decide for itself on this risk, and I wouldn’t want to be a part of something that potentially harms an infant. The placenta just isn’t the safest organ once it’s out of the body.”

Somebody tell that to the guy holding the candy dish.

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