Placenta Encapsulation and Breastfeeding

(Before we begin, let me clarify that I’m referring to any placentophagy, but a doula friend of mind pointed out that not everyone is familiar with that word. So, word of the day! Placentophagy.)

So, placenta encapsulation has become THE THING. As much as I love all my hippie weirdness (as I call it, not judging anyone else) becoming mainstream, I cringe a little about the placenta encapsulation thing. I have some concerns, and I know not everyone will agree with me, so I’ve held off on writing this for a while now.

Back when I was just a wee La Leche League Leader, just starting the process of becoming an IBCLC, I started a little placenta encapsulation business. In fact, the Sunshine Lactation facebook page used to be my placenta encapsulation business page. I’d had pretty scary postpartum depression for about a year after my oldest child was born, so while pregnant with my middle child, I was determined to do everything possible to prevent that again. I was desperate to avoid slipping back into that black hole. So, I prepared my own placenta capsules, and later ordered some extra supplies, took my OSHA BBP course, did some research, and started a little business encapsulating for friends.

I have since stopped – it was a lot of work, especially after I switched to prepping in the client’s kitchen for safety reasons – but I still prepped my own after the birth of my youngest child.

My subjective experience: I did not experience any noticeable affects on my milk supply. I didn’t experience any negative effects. I felt a noticeable change in my energy levels after taking the capsules. I did NOT experience depression.

However, as I began networking with more lactation professionals, working through my college coursework, moving toward the IBLCE exam, all while working with families as an LLL Leader, it became clear to me that not everyone was having such a positive experience with placenta encapsulation. Those ‘Happy Pills’ were not making everyone happy. In fact, I began hearing some reports that placenta consumption might be causing low milk supply in some mothers, particularly in first time mothers.

What?!? Right? Isn’t one of the advertised ‘benefits’ of placentophagy “better milk supply”?

So, here’s the thing that I learned when I became a lactation consultant:

During pregnancy, your breasts prepare to make milk, but full milk production is suppressed by the presence of the hormones progesterone and estrogen.

After the birth of your child, you birth your placenta. This triggers an enormous drop in maternal levels of progesterone and estrogen, which allows milk production to occur, what we call the milk ‘coming in’ or lactogenesis II. While most of breastfeeding is a supply-and-demand process, this first step is on autopilot: completely hormone-driven. That hormonal shift is important. It has to happen for lactation to happen.

The placenta itself contains progesterone and estrogen, in varying amounts. So what happens if you ingest those placenta pills before your milk has come in?

Exactly. For some mothers, the amount of estrogen and progesterone in those placenta capsules, or that smoothie, or tincture or whatever, is enough to suppress lactation. This should be a huge red flag for any placenta preparer! The last thing we want to do is cause low milk supply.

There are other concerns as well, which are described really well at placentarisks.org, really a wonderful resource created by the Sonoma County Breastfeeding Coalition. I strongly encourage you to have a look, and have an open and questioning mind. Is this product really beneficial? Is it worth the risks? And does it truly support breastfeeding?

At the very least, I hope we can start a trend of delaying placentophagy until after the onset of lactogenesis II – after the milk has ‘come in’ and we’ve established breastfeeding.

The best way we can support breastfeeding families, and cultivate healthy milk production and happy babies, is by preparing families for normal newborn behavior, educating families on breastfeeding BEFORE the baby arrives, and providing adequate and appropriate (the right provider for the right problem!) lactation support postpartum.

Any time we market a product as ‘increasing milk supply’, we need to consider if we are sending a message that mothers need products in order to be adequate. Postpartum confidence is a real issue in a country where mothers are often told they will fail before their baby has even arrived, are often stripped of their human rights in childbirth. We need to be mindful about our wording.

And if you are concerned about postpartum depression and anxiety, low milk supply, or are experiencing these symptoms, please, give me a call or schedule an appointment. I am happy to help however I can and have a number of local mental health professionals I refer to as well. My next post will cover postpartum depression and anxiety in-depth, and I hope connect families to options they may not already be aware of.