Last year, Chrissy Teigen said in an interview that her daughter Luna's umbilical cord was being stored in a closet in their home. Although Teigen didn't share her reasons for holding onto the keepsake, the internet was quick to judge, deeming the practice of making umbilical cord art gross and unsanitary.
Until you see it yourself, it is hard to imagine why a mother might choose to have art created from her umbilical cord, or how it could be beautiful. Yet the practice has become popular among mothers who wish to pay homage to their babies' birth, posting images of the resulting artwork on Instagram and Pinterest. One common practice for mothers is to shape the cord into the word "love" before dehydrating it. What is left is the twisted translucent and dark blood vessels of the cord. Another umbilical keepsake often seen is a heart, shaped before the cord is dehydrated. Each piece of umbilical cord art created is unique, dependent on the length and thickness of the mother's cord.
“The placenta is such a beautiful thing that should be honored and cherished,” Samantha Kempf, a Doula and Placenta Specialist from Kansas City, told Romper. As a Placenta Specialist, Kempf is trained to dehydrate and encapsulate a placenta for ingestion and umbilical cord art as keepsakes. She has also made her own umbilical cord art.
"I know that placenta prints, cord art and encapsulation aren't for everyone," she said. "That's fine, but I love educating others on what it actually does, so that they can at least learn to respect this awesome organ.”
Women around the world have been using their afterbirth for various rituals for some time. Burying both the umbilical cord and the placenta in a spiritually significant location has long been the practice of the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people in New Zealand. In his book, Childbirth and Tradition in Northeast Thailand, author Anders Poulsen describes the Thai tradition of rinsing the placenta in warm water, salting it, and placing it in a jar. The parents would then chose to bury the container in the location of their choosing.
"I know that cord art isn't for everyone. That's fine, but I love educating others on what it actually does, so that they can at least learn to respect this awesome organ.”
More recently, the practice of placentophagy, or eating the placenta, has risen in popularity among women in North America, according to The Atlantic. In many cases, the placenta is dehydrated and encapsulated in pill form, while some mothers choose to add it to a smoothie. Many women believe there are health benefits associated with this practice, such as increased milk supply and a decreased risk of postpartum depression.
In general, said Kempf, placenta encapsulation and umbilical cord art go hand in hand. Many of the moms who opt to have umbilical cord art created do so because they already plan to bring home their afterbirth for encapsulation.
The reasons for creating umbilical art varies from mom to mom. For some, it is a reminder of what mother and baby have shared with one another throughout a pregnancy. Others hang on to their cord as a cherished connection to a baby they have lost. "There are mothers who have...stillborn babies, who are unable to encapsulate their placentas, but still wish to have a cord keepsake made," explained Kempf.
Erin Heger, a 27-year-old mom of one, made umbilical cord art after the birth of her first child. “Honestly, I didn't even know umbilical cord art was a thing until our doula mentioned she could do it along with the encapsulation,” she told Romper. “I figured why not and thought it would be a nice keepsake.” Along with her encapsulated placenta, Erin was presented with a dream catcher fashioned from her umbilical cord, which now hangs in her son's room.
"I didn't even know umbilical cord art was a thing, but I figured, 'Why not?'"
Kempf was inspired to make her own umbilical cord keepsake when she was pregnant with her third child. "I became very interested in natural childbirth,” she said. “As a family we had already switched to a more natural-minded lifestyle and having a natural birth was something I really wanted to do. I hired a doula to help me, and she quickly became a wonderful friend of mine.” After her fourth child was born, Kempf become a doula herself as well as a Placenta Specialist, learning to both encapsulate placenta and create art from the umbilical cord.
The trend does, however, raise the question: is this hygienic? Or for tha matter, is it even legal? According to the Association of Placenta Preparation Arts, an organization for placenta preparation specialists, releasing afterbirth, which includes both the placenta and the umbilical cord, is not against the law in the United States. However, most hospitals do require mothers to sign a medical release form before their placenta specialist can take the afterbirth home with them.
“I think it symbolizes my connection with my baby and how my body grew him and sustained his life for many months."
“There are no safety concerns for [taking home] the placenta,” said Dr. Octavia Cannon, OB-GYN and co-owner of Arboretum Obstetrics and Gynecology, LLC, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Although she admitted she was unfamiliar with the practice of creating art from umbilical cords, she does serve a diverse population of mothers and reported that approximately 5% of her patients take their placenta home. The umbilical cord, which is still attached to the placenta, comes as part of the package.
“Different cultures have different practices; however, most patients bury it at home or use it to make capsules,” Dr. Cannon explained. “Patients that are taking the placenta capsules attempt to decrease the risk of postpartum depression and/or increase their breast milk supply.”
According to the Association of Placenta Preparation Arts, there's one exception to this rule: if the mother's placenta becomes infected before or during labor, it's probably not OK for the mother to ingest. But there is generally very little concern about the safety of turning the umbilical cord into art, according to Kempf.
"The cord is just a vessel, no tissue," she explained. "If the mother's placenta was deemed unusable due to infection, the cord would still be suitable to make a cord keepsake with."
Outside of the concern for safe handling of afterbirth, perhaps the most common question that arises is why moms are adopting this practice. In fact, much of the media attention surrounding this practice has focused on its perceived ick factor. Ultimately, mothers who choose to have art made from their umbilical cord wish to take home a memento of the nine months they spent physically connected to their child.
“I love that it's a dream catcher and it hangs in my baby's room,” Heger said. “I think it symbolizes my connection with my baby and how my body grew him and sustained his life for many months."