As routine as birth has become (386,000 babies are born into the world each day), there are still some parts of labor and delivery that are a bit odd. We tapped Dr. Jacqueline Darna, physician; inventor of NoMo Nausea, a natural morning sickness relief product; and creator of the Pregnancy Pukeology Podcast to share the weirdest things you didn’t know about birth.
Weird Birth Fact #1: Eating the Placenta
Most mammals ingest their new offspring’s placenta immediately after birth. One hypothesis is to remove any evidence of having given birth, so as not to attract predators. Another is that it provides nutritional value. While there is no scientific evidence that doing so is a good idea for humans, some alternative medicine modalities in the West encourage it. The placenta is technically an organ. It grows during pregnancy and serves to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the fetus through the umbilical cord, and to remove waste from the fetus’s blood. An average human placenta weighs about a pound, is nine inches long, and about an inch thick. And it’s not pretty. In layperson’s terms, it’s a slimy blob of blue-red goo. Women who want to consume it typically have it encapsulated—dried, crushed, and put into about 120 gel pills.
Weird Birth Fact #2: The Practice of Lotus Birth
Another weird birth practice involving the placenta is what’s known as lotus birth. In more standard births, the baby’s umbilical cord (which attaches the baby to the placenta) is cut shortly after delivery. In lotus birth, it’s left connected. “The placenta is considered fresh, or viable, for up to three hours post-delivery,” says Dr. Darna. “The idea behind leaving it connected for that time is to maintain hemoglobin or blood levels in the baby, and excrete waste and toxins that may have accumulated during the stress of the birthing process.” Some parents take it to the extreme, bringing the placenta home with them and leaving it connected to the baby until the umbilical cord naturally severs, typically 3 to 7 days. The bacteria risk of leaving your baby attached to a rotting organ is enough for doctors, including Dr. Darna, to not recommend this.
Weird Birth Fact #3: The Length of Human Births
Compared to other mammals, human labor is extremely long. A study of 2,500 full-term births at the University of New Mexico put the average for first-time mothers at nine hours. Meanwhile, both apes and monkeys give birth in about two hours. Further, human babies are large, relatively speaking, with such big heads that according to American Scientist, one in 1,000 human mothers have a baby whose head is too big to fit through the birth canal (requiring a cesarean section, where available). Even for mothers who can deliver vaginally, doctors agree that the head of a full-term fetus is a tight fit for a woman’s bony birth canal.
Weird Birth Fact #4: The Mucus Plug
The vagina and cervix provide an open passageway for pathogens to travel up to the uterus, your unborn baby’s lair. For protection, an expecting mother’s cervix builds a thick mucus plug to physically seal off the sterile uterine cavity from the outside world. The mucus plug also has antimicrobial properties to kill any bacteria moving up from the vagina, from, say, sex. For all its benefits however, the mucus plug is a frightening sight. It looks that sizable glob of gelatinous snot you coughed up the last time you were really sick. It can also be tinged in red or brown blood if a blood vessel in the cervix ruptured, which is fairly typical. The mucus plug is expelled at the end of pregnancy, anywhere between a week or two prior to labor, up to an hour or two prior. For many women, it passes out unnoticed during urination. But the trend is to look for it, and, yes, take a photo.
Weird Birth Fact #5: Bowel Movements
It’s been Dr. Darna’s experience that more than 70 percent of expecting mothers poop during delivery. The baby coming through the vaginal puts immense pressure on the rectum, creating a squeeze. Plus, when a woman pushes during childbirth, she’s engaging all the muscles of the pelvic floor, literally forcing out everything down there, including on the backend. Before becoming too embarrassed at the prospect, consider that Dr. Darna says that most couples don’t even know it’s happened. “It’s so common and normal that the OBGYN or one of the others helping out will discreetly wipe it off the table,” she says.