The thought of childbirth probably conjures up images of a sweaty mom-to-be in a brightly lit hospital delivery room. Midwives mop the patient’s brow as her hands clench and her eyes squeeze tight as she pushes her baby out. And, when the purple-hued newborn emerges, it begins to cry – and so do its overjoyed family members.
Then comes the cutting of the umbilical cord. Often times, this honor is given to the baby’s father or the mother’s chosen birth partner. With one snip, the baby is no longer connected to its mother or to the placenta. Thus the newborn is removed from the organ which provided the baby’s oxygen, nutrition and temperature regulation in the womb.
But one U.K. mom who lives in the town of Brighton, south England, did not experience any of this. Instead, her son’s birth in 2010 came without the conventional clip of the cord. And, some six days later, the new mom was still carrying around her newborn and his placenta. The reasons she did so led to a very interesting and controversial debate.
Writer Adele Allen prescribes to what she calls off-grid parenting techniques. On her blog, The Unconventional Parent, the 33-year-old outlines some of the motherhood mantras she follows. “Off-grid parenting uses alternative medicine as primary healthcare,” she writes. “Off-grid parenting respects autonomy by following the child-led parenting philosophy.” She does not vaccinate her children, keeps them barefoot as much as possible and does not send them to school.
So, it probably came as no surprise to anyone that Allen had an unusual birth plan when she was expecting her son, Ulysses, back in 2010. She opted for a home birth, and was determined that the experience should be even more “real.” Not for her the modern luxury of a professionally trained midwife to assist with labor.
Allen later wrote in her blog, “To me, natural birth means a whole lot more than just birthing in the comfort of your own home without forceps and drugs.” In order to cultivate the truly natural environment she wanted, Allen delivered her son without a midwife present. “To truly understand how nature [meant] women to give birth we must look to the wild animals who are untouched by man,” she added.
“I decided to opt for an unassisted birth without any intervention,” she wrote in her blog in 2013. “[I wanted] my baby to be born at the exact time and in the way that I felt most comfortable. Even though I had emergency numbers on hand, I chose not to have any midwives or medical professionals present as I felt I could not trust them to… follow through on my birth plan.”
So, with just the help of her husband, Matt, a 34-year-old part-time fitness instructor, Allen delivered Ulysses at home. And, once the newborn had arrived, dad was not at hand with a pair of sharp scissors. The new parents had made the conscious decision not to remove the baby’s umbilical cord – or the placenta attached to the end of it.
This had nothing to do with the fact that the couple lacked the wherewithal to clip the cord and properly dispose of the placenta. Allen had decided before her son’s birth that she wanted to follow what’s known as a lotus birth plan. This approach has gained much traction among many moms to be in recent years. It has also provoked plenty of debate amongst medical professionals.
A lotus birth is one in which the umbilical cord and placenta are left attached to the baby after they are delivered. Parents then wait for the cord to dry up and fall off naturally. This process can take anything from three to ten days, depending on the amount of humidity in the baby’s new environment. Ulysses’ cord fell away after six days.
For Allen, the choice was clear. She felt a lotus birth would allow her instant closeness with her son, a key to connecting fully to her newborn. Allen did not deliver her placenta for five hours after she gave birth to Ulysses, meaning that baby had to stay physically close to her. “This provided for a special bonding period in a close embrace, without separation,” she wrote on her blog. “During this vital period of bonding between us I feel strongly that it was important that no-one else take the baby away, and having the placenta still attached to the cord helped ensure this.”
And Allen is not alone in her allegiance to the practice. Midwife and tutor Mary Ceallaigh spoke to The New York Post in April, 2013 about the health benefits of a lotus birth. She claimed the practice can help reduce a baby’s risk of infection. She added, “[It] allows a complete transfer of placental/cord blood into the baby at a time when the baby needs that nourishment the most.”
Allen expanded on the topic in an article she penned for the pregnancy and parenting website Mom.me. She wrote, “[Lotus birth] ensures your baby receives the full 30-50 percent remainder of their blood supply, which continues pulsating through the cord from the placenta for around 3-10 minutes after birth.” She also claimed that delayed cord cutting allows babies to receive all of their stem cells, decreases their chances of becoming anemic, and increases the baby’s all-round immunity.
Ceallaigh, who has overseen more than 100 natural births, also reiterated the importance of a baby’s immunity to disease. “Babies’ immune systems are going through huge changes at a very rapid rate when they’re first born,” she said. “Not disrupting the baby’s blood volume at that time helps prevent future disease.”
More conventionally minded medical professionals and researchers have actually agreed that there are some benefits to leaving the umbilical cord attached to a newborn baby. However, their time parameters for doing so are much shorter than those involved with a lotus birth.
Hilda Hutcherson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, told the online magazine Yahoo! Shine her opinion on the matter. She said, “There has been research in the past few years which found that when doctors delay clamping the cord for three minutes, the baby receives higher levels of iron which prevents anemia. But beyond that time frame, leaving the cord attached to the baby serves no purpose because it no longer feeds nutrients to the baby.”
And, while advocates for lotus birth say it helps build up the immune system, not all entirely agree. Doctors say that having the placenta attached post-birth can actually create a greater risk for infection. Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in London, said in a statement, “The placenta is particularly prone to infection as it contains blood.”
“At the post-delivery stage, [the placenta] has no circulation and is essentially dead tissue,” O’Brien’s statement continued. “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.”
Dr. Jennifer Ashton, star of U.S. TV medical talk show The Doctors, chimed in with her take after an on-air interview with Adele Allen in 2016. But Ashton ultimately acknowledged that it is the mother’s right to create her birth plan. The doctor said, “I think we have to be careful not to make massive generalizations that natural is good and medical intervention is bad because obviously in reality it’s somewhere in the middle.” She concluded, “I always applaud the right of any mother to do what she thinks is best for herself and for her baby.”
And Allen believed the lotus birth was the best option for her and her baby – not once, but twice. She delivered her second child, a daughter Ostara, in 2015. Once again Allen opted for an unassisted labor and lotus birth. Although it is clear this method works for her, Allen has conceded one thing. She cannot know for sure if it has improved her children’s quality of life in comparison to a traditional birth. However, what the mom of two is convinced of, as she told Mom.me, is that she has given her babies “the best gift that cannot be severed – an unbreakable connection of love and security.”