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Placenta: The Incredible Organ You Make During Pregnancy

Parenting is full of obstacles that can be hard to navigate—even without a toddler yelling at your face. There’s no instruction manual, which means discerning fact from fiction and reasonable from ridiculous can be maddening. That’s where Parentalogic comes in, a digital series brought to you by NOVA and PBS Digital Studios. Subscribe to the YouTube channel to receive alerts when new episodes launch.

Premiered: Runtime: 6:26Topic: Body + BrainBody & BrainNova
Premiered on PBS

“The placenta is literally a wonder organ,” co-host Alok Patel says, “kind of like how Mary Poppins is a wonderful creature.” In this episode of Parentalogic, he and co-host Bethany Van Delft explore how the placenta takes care of everything a developing baby needs during their 9-month stay in the uterus, acting as lungs, kidney, heart, and endocrine system. The placenta ferries nutrients—food from mom—to the growing baby. It assists with gas exchange, much like a lung does, despite being submerged in fluid. Since babies in utero can’t pee or poop (at least in the traditional sense), the placenta also helps with the removal of waste products, like uric acid. And, in true “wonder organ” fashion, it also gives babies antibodies for immunity to viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, helping with hormone development and regulation along the way.

If you, your partner, or another loved one took medications while pregnant, the placenta may have also helped safeguard your little one from their effects. Opiates, benzos, and beta-blockers can cross a placental barrier, but many prescribed drugs cannot and are fine to take while pregnant, Alok explains. Some infections, including toxoplasmosis and rubella, can cross the placental barrier as well. (In a public health victory, however, you can now be vaccinated against rubella.)

Typically, a mom’s placenta develops from the top of the uterus, where it will attach to the uterine wall and then detach after delivery. But its position can vary. Some positions, like placenta previa, in which it covers the cervix where the baby needs to exit at birth, can cause complications.

When a mother’s placenta (and baby) are delivered, should mom consider eating it? Alok and Bethany explore the short and long answers and conclude that it may just depend on whether mom is a human—or not.

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National Corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.

Major funding for Parentalogic is provided by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and PBS.