Putting the ART in PostpARTum By Raeben Nolan - Original article first appeared in International Doula, DONA - Vol 17, Issue 4,2009 and later in The Mother - Issue 47, July/August 2011
The placenta is the amazing organ that supported baby for the nine or so months before birth. It does such a good job of nourishing the growing child in the womb and yet in modern hospitals it is regarded as nothing more than "medical waste" after it is born. Many other cultures, however, honor the placenta, calling it the baby's knapsack, the baby's first clothes or even the baby's spirit protector. Some cultures ceremonially bury the placenta so that the child will remain connected to the land and to the community. Others use the placenta to make medicines that will restore the mother's vitality postpartum or help return the baby to a state of balance during times of transition. One way that women today can bring back the tradition of honor and gratitude toward the placenta is to make artistically beautiful prints with it.
As a placenta services provider, I offer placenta print making to all of my clients along with placenta encapsulation and other placenta services. It is simple and can be done alone or in conjunction with any other placenta medicine or tradition. Mothers are thrilled with the beautiful images created by their own placenta. Some families frame the "tree of life" prints and proudly display them in their home, while others save them along with baby's first hair cutting or first tooth. One of my clients attached a print to the outside of her belly cast and one artistic father illustrated a beautiful, mystical landscape around several of the prints. Whatever the families choose to do with them, placenta prints are a lasting depiction of the conduit between mother and baby-in-the-womb and a lovely way to honor the placenta as well as the pregnancy.
How to Make Placenta Prints
The supplies you need are simply good paper, some disposable gloves for handling the placenta if it does not belong to you, a cutting board or chux pad to lay it out on and a roll of paper towel. For your first time making placenta prints it is definitely helpful to have an assistant as well.
The paper should be good artist's quality, non-acidic paper. Out of all of the different kinds of paper I have experimented with, my favorite is a heavy weight, 60-90 lb drawing paper with a nice vellum texture. I have also made nice prints with watercolor paper and I know that other people make prints using canvas although that can be costly. Avoid newsprint or papers with any sort of glossy coating as these will make very poor prints. The size should be at least 11 x 14 inches or larger, especially if there are plans to frame or display the print later. I prefer 14 x 17 inch paper for single prints and 18 x 24 for double or multiple prints.
Ideally the placenta will be relatively fresh. After it has been born, it can be refrigerated for a few days until the mother and her family are ready to make prints. If it has been frozen, it will need to be defrosted before prints can be made. Previously frozen placentas tend to be more watery and the membranes are more fragile. Generally, placentas that have been frozen do not print quite as clearly because the veins become somewhat flaccid once thawed.
Lay your papers and supplies out on a table or counter (you may want to cover your workstation with chux pads for ease of cleanup later). Take the placenta out of its bag or container and wipe off the excess blood and any clots with your hand. The print is made with the remaining blood that is on the placenta and should not be washed off. Some people use acrylic paints or watercolor gouache, but I prefer the natural blood as it is the perfect consistency and creates gorgeous prints with a spectrum of light to dark red-brown coloration. Also, if the mother wishes to make placenta medicine or meals with it afterward, no coloration should be used.
There are two main printing methods - both can make adequate prints but result in very different effects. The first is made by simply gathering up the placenta and placing it on the paper and arranging the attached cord in whatever design you like. It can be difficult to lift the placenta off of the paper without assistance though. These prints are bold, often quite smeared and not very detailed, but they give a general depiction of the size and shape of the placenta. The second method, which I prefer, is done by placing the placenta on a chux pad or other clean, flat surface, tucking the membranes underneath the placenta, arranging the cord as desired and then laying the paper on top. Gently smooth (not smoosh) the paper over the placenta with your fingers to make sure it comes into contact with the entire area and then carefully lift the paper off. These prints will give a much more detailed print of the unique topography of the placenta. When printed against the smooth fetal side of the placenta, the arteries and veins create a unique pattern of delicate "branches" which earn these prints the name "arbor vitae" (Latin), or more commonly, "tree of life." When printed on the raw maternal side, the lobes form a pattern that is as unique as a person's finger prints.
The first couple of prints may be fairly heavy or even too wet if there is still excess blood on the placenta. But after two or three prints on the fetal side, the "ink" can start to run out. This side can be refreshed for more prints by rubbing some of the blood from the capillary rich maternal side of the placenta. Blood from the placenta container can also be used, but this has mostly separated into plasma which creates a lighter, more watery, print. Occasionally the amnion, the thin inner membrane which also covers the fetal side, will partially or completely separate from the placenta, causing very smeared looking prints. If this is a problem, the amnion can be gently peeled away although it will have to be trimmed from where it attaches to the cord.
When you are finished, lay your prints on a flat surface to dry, out of reach of children and pets. You may want to place paper-weights on the corners to keep the paper from warping or curling. Once dried, some people choose to spay artists fixative over the print to help preserve it but this is not strictly necessary. The prints are now ready to be displayed or used by the family as a reminder of the life giving connection between mother and child.