The medical term for this is placentophagy and it is a real thing. If you follow the lay press you may have seen that originally this was promoted by Kourtney Kardashian who did this herself and then by Kim who planned on doing the same after delivery. See Did Kourtney Kardashian Eat Her Placenta?
This is not completely without basis as many readers will be thinking already that they have heard about the health benefits of doing the same. Reports of improved mood and reductions in the baby blues following ingestion of placenta as well as improvements in breast milk production have led to this growing practice. The evidence for this up until recently though was quite old and fraught with poorly design of such studies. The bigger driver however has been word of mouth as many women having heard about the promises of better mood at the very least have thought “why not? Can’t hurt.”
What I will do in this post is run through a little background and a few recent studies that have shed some light on how likely this is to actually work.
Where did the idea come from?
Animals eat their placentas after delivery. It turns out that unprocessed placenta is quite high in the hormone prolactin which is instrumental for breastfeeding. Given the large amount of this hormone as well as the number of other hormones present in such tissue it was thought that the same benefits would be found in humans. Eating unprocessed human tissue whether it is put in a capsule or not is unwise as unwanted bacteria can be consumed. In fact, a case of GBS sepsis has been linked to such a practice in which the source of the GBS was thought to be due to contaminated unprocessed maternal placenta that had been ingested. Buser GL, Mat´o S, Zhang AY, Metcalf BJ, Beall B, Thomas AR. Notes from the field: Late-onset infant group B streptococcus infection associated
with maternal consumption of capsules containing dehydrated placenta.
What happens when you process placenta by steaming and drying?
This would be the most common way of getting it into capsules. This process which renders it safe to consume may have significant effects on reducing hormonal levels.This was found in a recent study that measured oxytocin and human placental lactogen (both involved positively in lactation) and found reductions in both of 99.5% and 89.2%, respectively compared versus raw placenta. I would assume that other hormones would be similarly affected so how much prolactin might actually wind up in these capsules after all?
Clinical Randomized Double Blind Controlled Trial
Twenty seven women from Las Vegas were recruited into a pilot trial (12 beef placebo vs 15 steamed and dried placenta) with the authors examining three different outcomes across three studies. The first study Effects of placentophagy on maternal salivary hormones: A pilot trial, part 1 looked at a large number of salivary hormones at four time points. Plasma samples were taken as well to determine the volume of distribution of the same. First samples were at week 36 of gestation then within 4 days (96 h) of birth followed by days 5–7 (120–168 h) postpartum and finally Days 21–27 (504–648 h) postpartum. All consumption of capsules was done in the home as was collection of samples. As per the authors in terms of consumption it was as follows “two 550 mg capsules three times daily for the first 4 days; two 550 mg capsules twice daily on days 5 through 12, and then to decrease the dose to two 550 mg capsules once daily for the remainder of the study (days 13 through approximately day 20 of supplementation).
No difference was found between salivary concentrations of hormones at any time point other than that with time they declined following birth. Curiously the volume of distribution of the hormones in serum was slightly higher in the placenta capsule groups but not enough to influence the salivary concentrations. It was felt moreover that the amount of incremental hormone level found in the serum was unlikely to lead to any clinical response.
The second study was on mood Placentophagy’s effects on mood, bonding, and fatigue: A pilot trial, part 2. Overall there were no differences for the groups but they did find “some evidence of a decrease in depressive symptoms within the placenta group but not the placebo group, and reduced fatigue in placenta group participants at the end of the study compared to the placebo group.”
What is clear to me is that the answer to this question remains unclear! What is clear is that I don’t think it is wise to consume raw placenta due to the risks of bacterial contamination. Secondly, the levels of hormones left in the placental preparation and the most common preparation of steaming and drying leave hormone levels that are unlikely to influence much at all from a biochemical standpoint. It also seems that breastmilk production and neonatal weight gain aren’t influenced much by consumption of these pills.
The issue though in all of this is that while the previous research was of low quality, the current research while of better quality is at a low volume. These were pilot trials and not powered to find a difference likely. The finding in the subgroup of some effect on mood at the end of the study does leave some hope to those that believe in the power of the placenta to help. Would a larger study find benefit to this practice? My suspicion from a biochemical standpoint is not but that one may feel a benefit from a placebo response.
Should you go out and have your placenta prepared for consumption? If you have Kardashian like wealth then go for it if you think it will help. If you don’t then I would suggest waiting for something more definitive before spending your money on placentophagy.
One of the benefits of operating this site is that I often learn from the people reading these posts as they share their perspectives. On a recent trip I was reunited with Boubou Halberg a Neonatologist from Sweden whom I hadn’t seen in many years. I missed him on my last trip to Stockholm as I couldn’t make it to Karolinska University but we managed to meet each other in the end. As we caught up and he learned that I operated this site he passed along a paper of his that left an impact on me and I thought I would share with you.
When we think about treating an infant with a medicinal product, we often think about getting the right drug, right dose and right administration (IV, IM or oral) for maximum benefit to the patient. When it comes to nutrition we have certainly come a long way and have come to rely on registered dietitians where I work to handle a lot of the planning when it comes to getting the right prescription for our patients. We seem comfortable though making some assumptions when it comes to nutrition that we would never make with respect to their drug counterparts. More on that later…
A Swedish Journey to Ponder
Westin R and colleagues (one of whom is my above acquaintance) published a seven year retrospective nutritional journey in 2017 from Stockholm entitled Improved nutrition for extremely preterm infants: A population based observational study. After recognizing that over this seven year period they had made some significant changes to the way they approached nutrition, they chose to see what effect this had on growth of their infants from 22 0/7 to 26 6/7 weeks over this time by examining four epochs (2004-5, 2006-7, 2008-9 and 2010-11. What were these changes? They are summarized beautifully in the following figure.
Not included in the figure was a progressive change as well to a more aggressive position of early nutrition in the first few days of life using higher protein, fat and calories as well as changes to the type of lipid provided being initially soy based and then changing to one primarily derived from olive oil. Protein targets in the first days to weeks climbed from the low 2s to the mid 3s in gram/kg/d while provision of lipid as an example doubled from the first epoch to the last ending with a median lipid provision in the first three days of just over 2 g/kg/d.
While figure 3 from the paper demonstrates that regardless of time period there were declines in growth across all three measurements compared to expected growth patterns, when one compares the first epoch in 2004-2005 with the last 2010-11 there were significant protective effects of the nutritional strategy in place. The anticipated growth used as a standard was based on the Fenton growth curves.
What this tells us of course is that we have improved but still have work to do. Some of the nutritional sources as well were donor breast milk and based on comments coming back from this years Pediatric Academic Society meeting we may need to improve how that is prepared as growth failure is being noted in babies who are receiving donated rather than fresh mother’s own milk. I suspect there will be more on that as time goes by.
Knowing where you started is likely critical!
One advantage they have in Sweden is that they know what is actually in the breast milk they provide. Since 1998 the babies represented in this paper have had their nutritional support directed by analyzing what is in the milk provided by an analyzer. Knowing the caloric density and content of protein, carbohydrates and fats goes a long way to providing a nutritional prescription for individual infants. This is very much personalized medicine and it would appear the Swedes are ahead of the curve when it comes to this. in our units we have long assumed a caloric density of about 68 cal/100mL. What if a mother is producing milk akin to “skim milk” while another is producing a “milkshake”. This likely explains why some babies despite us being told they should be getting enough calories just seem to fail to thrive. I can only speculate what the growth curves shown above would look like if we did the same study in units that actually take a best guess as to the nutritional content of the milk they provide.
This paper gives me hope that when it comes to nutrition we are indeed moving in the right direction as most units become more aggressive with time. What we need to do though is think about nutrition no different than writing prescriptions for the drugs we use and use as much information as we can to get the dosing right for the individual patient!
Exclusive human milk (EHM) diets using either mother’s own milk or donor milk plus a human based human milk fortifier have been the subject of many papers over the last few years. Such papers have demonstrated reductions is such outcomes as NEC, length of stay, days of TPN and number of times feedings are held due to feeding intolerance to name just a few outcomes. There is little argument that a diet for a human child composed of human milk makes a great deal of sense. Although we have come to rely on bovine sources of both milk and fortifier when human milk is unavailable I am often reminded that bovine or cow’s milk is for baby cows.
Challenges with using an exclusive human milk diet.
While it makes intuitive sense to strive for an exclusive human milk diet, there are barriers to the same. Low rates of maternal breastfeeding coupled with limited or no exposure to donor breast milk programs are a clear impediment. Even if you have those first two issues minimized through excellent rates of breast milk provision, there remains the issue of whether one has access to a human based fortifier to achieve the “exclusive” human milk diet.
The “exclusive” approach is one that in the perfect world we would all strive for but in times of fiscal constraint there is no question that any and all programs will be questioned from a cost-benefit standpoint. The issue of cost has been addressed previously by Ganapathy et al in their paper Costs of Necrotizing Enterocolitis and Cost-Effectiveness of Exclusively Human Milk-Based Products in Feeding Extremely Premature Infants. The authors were able to demonstrate that choosing an exclusive human milk diet is cost effective in addition to the benefits observed clinically from such a diet. In Canada where direct costs are more difficult to visualize and a reduction in nursing staff per shift brings about the most direct savings, such an argument becomes more difficult to achieve.
Detractors from the EHM diet argue that we have been using bovine fortification from many years and the vast majority of infants regardless of gestational age have little challenge with it. Growth rates of 15-20 g/kg/d are achievable using such fortification so why would you need to treat all patients with an EHM diet?
A Rescue Approach
In our own centre we were faced with these exact questions and developed a rescue approach. The rescue was designed to identify those infants who seemed to have a clear intolerance to bovine fortifier as all of the patients we care for under 1250g receive either mother’s own or donor milk. The approach used was as follows:
A. < 27 weeks 0 days or < 1250 g i. 2 episode of intolerance to HMF ii. Continue for 2 weeks
This month we published our results from using this targeted rescue approach in Winnipeg, Human Based Human Milk Fortifier as Rescue Therapy in Very Low Birth Weight Infants Demonstrating Intolerance to Bovine Based Human Milk Fortifier with Dr. Sandhu being the primary author (who wrote this as a medical student with myself and others. We are thrilled to share our experience and describe the cases we have experienced in detail in the paper. Suffice to say though that we have identified value in such an approach and have now modified our current approach based on this experience to the following protocol for using human derived human milk fortifier in our centre to the current: A. < 27 weeks 0 days or < 1250 g i. 1 episode of intolerance to HMF ii. Continue for 4 weeks B. ≥ 27 week 0 days or ≥ 750g i. 2 episodes of intolerance to HMF ii. Continue for 4 weeks or to 32 weeks 0 days whichever comes sooner
We believe given our current contraints, this approach will reduce the risk of NEC, feeding intolerance and ultimately length of stay while being fiscally prudent in these challenging times. Given the interest at least in Canada with what we have been doing here in Winnipeg and with the publication of our results it seemed like the right time to share this with you. Whether this approach or one that is based on providing human based human milk fortifier to all infants <1250g is a matter of choice for each institution that chooses to use a product such as Prolacta. In no way is this meant to be a promotional piece but rather to provide an option for those centres that would like to use such products to offer an EHM diet but for a variety of reasons have opted not to provide it to all.
A strange title perhaps but not when you consider that both are in much need of increasing muscle mass. Muscle takes protein to build and a global market exists in the adult world to achieve this goal. For the preterm infant human milk fortifiers provide added protein and when the amounts remain suboptimal there are either powdered or liquid protein fortifiers that can be added to the strategy to achieve growth. When it comes to the preterm infant we rely on nutritional science to guide us. How much is enough? The European Society For Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition published recommendations in 2010 based on consensus and concluded:
“We therefore recommend aiming at 4.0 to 4.5 g/kg/day protein intake for infants up to 1000 g, and 3.5 to 4.0 g/kg/day for infants from 1000 to 1800 g that will meet the needs of most preterm infants. Protein intake can be reduced towards discharge if the infant’s growth pattern allows for this. The recommended range of protein intake is therefore 3.5 to 4.5 g/kg/day.”
These recommendations are from six years ago though and are based on evidence that preceded their working group so one would hope that the evidence still supports such practice. It may not be as concrete though as one would hope.
Let’s Jump To 2012
Miller et al published an RCT on the subject entitled Effect of increasing protein content of human milk fortifier on growth in preterm infants born at <31 wk gestation: a randomized controlled trial. This trial is quite relevant in that it involved 92 infants (mean GA 27-28 weeks and about 1000g on average at the start), 43 of whom received a standard amount of protein 3.6 g/kg/day vs 4.2 g/kg/d in the high protein group. This was commenced once fortification was started and carried through till discharge with energy intakes and volume of feeds being the same in both groups. The authors used a milk analyzer to ensure consistency in the total content of nutrition given the known variability in human milk nutritional content. The results didn’t show much to write home about. There were no differences in weight gain or any measurements but the weight at discharge was a little higher in the high protein group. The length of stay trended towards a higher number of days in the high protein group so that may account for some of the difference. All in all though 3.6 or 4.2 g/kg/d of protein didn’t seem to do much to enhance growth.
Now let’s jump to 2016
This past month Maas C et al published an interesting trial on protein supplementation entitled Effect of Increased Enteral Protein Intake on Growth in Human Milk-Fed Preterm Infants: A Randomized Clinical Trial. This modern day study had an interesting question to answer. How would growth compare if infants who were fed human milk were supplemented with one of three protein contents based on current recommendations. The first group of 30 infants all < 32 weeks received standard protein intake of 3.5 g/kg/d while the second group of 30 were given an average intake of 4.1 g/kg/d. The second group of 30 were divided though into an empiric group in which the protein content of maternal or donor milk was assumed to be a standard amount while the second 15 had their protein additive customized based on an analysis of the human milk being provided. Whether the higher intake group was estimated or customized resulted in no difference in protein intake on average although variability between infants in actual intake was reduced. Importantly, energy intake was no different between the high and low groups so if any difference in growth was found it would presumably be related to the added protein.
Does it make a difference?
The results of this study failed to show any benefit to head circumference, length or weight between the two groups. The authors in their discussion postulate that there is a ceiling effect when it comes to protein and I would tend to agree. There is no question that if one removes protein from the diet an infant cannot grow as they would begin to break down muscle to survive. At some point the minimum threshold is met and as one increases protein and energy intake desired growth rates ensue. What this study suggests though is that there comes a point where more protein does not equal more growth. It is possible to increase energy intakes further as well but then we run the risk of increasing adiposity in these patients.
I suppose it would be a good time to express what I am not saying! Protein is needed for the growing preterm infant so I am not jumping on the bandwagon of suggesting that we should question the use of protein fortification. I believe though that the “ceiling” for protein use lies somewhere between 3.5 – 4 g/kg/d of protein intake. We don’t really know if it is at 3.5, 3.7, 3.8 or 3.9 but it likely is sitting somewhere in those numbers. It seems reasonable to me to aim for this range but follow urea (something outside of renal failure I have personally not paid much attention to). If the urea begins rising at a higher protein intake approaching 4 g/kg/d perhaps that is the bodies way of saying enough!
Lastly this study also raises a question in my mind about the utility of milk analyzers. At least for protein content knowing precisely how much is in breastmilk may not be that important in the end. Then again that raises the whole question of the accuracy of such devices but I imagine that could be the source of a post for another day.
Breast milk has many benefits and seems to be in the health care news feeds almost daily. As the evidence mounts for long term effects of the infant microbiome, more and more centres are insisting on providing human milk to their smallest infants. Such provision significantly reduces the incidence of NEC, mortality and length of stay. There is a trade-off though in that donor milk after processing loses some of it’s benefits in terms of nutritional density. One such study demonstrated nutritional insufficiencies with 79% having a fat content < 4 g/dL, 56% having protein content< 1.5 g/dL, and 67% having an energy density < 67 kcal/dL (< 20 Kcal/oz). It is for this reason that at least in our unit many infants on donor milk ultimately receive a combination of high fluid volumes, added beneprotein or cow’s milk powders to achieve adequate caloric intake. Without such additions, growth failure ensues. Such growth failure is not without consequence and will be the topic of a future post. One significant concern however is that failure of our VLBW infants to grow will no doubt impact the timing of discharge as at least in our unit, babies less than 1700g are unlikely to be discharged. With the seemingly endless stream of babies banging on the doors of the NICU to occupy a bed, any practice that leads to increasing lengths of stay will no doubt slow discharge and cause a swelling daily patient census.
What if increasing volume was not an option?
Such might be the case with a baby diagnosed with BPD. Medical teams are often reluctant to increase volumes in these patients due to concerns of water retention increasing respiratory support and severity of the condition. While diuretics have not been shown to be of long term benefit to BPD they continue to be used at times perhaps due to old habits or anecdotal experiences by team members of a baby who seemed to benefit. Such use though is not without it’s complications as the need to monitor electrolytes means more needle sticks for these infants subjecting them to painful procedures that they truly don’t need. Alternatively, another approach is to restrict fluids but this may lead to hunger or create little room to add enough nutrition again potentially compromising the long term health of such infants.
This paper is essentially a study within a study. Infants taking part in an RCT of Prolacta cream (Prolacta being the subject of a previous post) were randomized as well to a cream supplement vs no cream. The cream had a caloric density of 2.5 Kcal/mL and was added to donor milk or mother’s own milk when the measured caloric density was less than 19 Kcal/oz. The study was small (75 patients; control 37, cream 38) which should be stated upfront and as it was a secondary analysis of the parent study was not powered to detect a difference in length of stay but that was what was reported here. The results for the groups overall were demonstrated an impact in length of stay and discharge with the results shown below.
PDA ligation %
PDA treated medically %
Length of stay, days
PMA at discharge, weeks
What about those with sensitivity to fluid?
Before we go into that let me state clearly that this group comparison is REALLY SMALL (control with BPD=12 vs cream with BPD=9). The results though are interesting.
BPD control (N=12)
BPD cream N=9
Length of stay, days
PMA at discharge, weeks
So they did not reach statistical significance yet one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the study had been larger or better yet the study was a prospective RCT examining the use of cream as a main outcome. That of course is what no doubt will come with time. I can’t help but think though that the results have biologic plausibility. Providing better nutrition should lead to better growth, enhanced tissue repair and with it earlier readiness for discharge.
One interesting point here is that the method that was used to calculate the caloric density of milk was found to overestimate the density by an average of 1.2 Kcal/oz when the method was compared to a gold standard. Given that fortification with cream was only to be used if the caloric density of the milk fell below 19 Kcal/oz where average milk caloric density is 20 Kcal/oz there is the distinct possibility that the eligible infants for cream were underestimated. Could some of the BPD be attributable to infants being significantly undernourished in the control group as they actually were receiving <19 Kcal/oz but not fortified? Could the added fortification have led to faster recovery from BPD?
Interesting question’s in need of answers. I look forward to seeing where this goes. I suspect that donor milk is not enough, adding a little cream may be needed for some infants especially those who have trouble tolerating cow’s milk fortification.
Will that be q2h, q3h or q4h feeding? When I started my residency in Pediatrics that was the question I needed to ask before writing an order to start oral feeding in a preterm infant. At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable but I have to admit the question for me was “What if they aren’t ready?”. Does a baby who won’t take the breast or bottle at the 3 hour mark clearly show they aren’t able to feed or that they really are just not ready to feed? We commonly say that children are not small adults. Hospitalized adults commonly will utter the words “I’m not hungry” when their food tray is brought to them. This may be a reflection of what has been put before them rather than whether hunger exists or not but they seem to be able to be ready to eat so why not children and by extension preterm infants in the NICU.
My approach to feeding premature infants was fairly consistent until about 10 years ago when nurses in Edmonton, Alberta (in a level II unit) introduced me to “semi-demand” feeding. What I find interesting about this, is the paucity of evidence that existed on the subject. At the time, the evidence really centred around one paper but the impact of the approach was undeniable. In 2001 McCain et al published the randomized controlled trial involving 81 infants A feeding protocol for healthy preterm infants shortens time to oral feeding. The concept of semi-demand feeding was to assess each infant (once preterms reached 32-34 weeks CGA) before a feed for signs “of feeding readiness”. This was accomplished through offering non-nutritive sucking every three hours before a scheduled feed. If the infant was found to be in a wakeful state, the oral feeding was commenced but otherwise the infant was left for 30 minutes with NNS attempted again. If the infant was still not ready then a gavage would be given. The key here is that the infants were monitored for signs of feeding readiness rather than insisting upon an arbitrary time for their next feed. The study findings were a halving of the time it took to reach full feeds (10 days in control vs. 5 days in semi-demand) with no difference in weight gain observed between groups. The latter point is worth emphasizing, as the concern with semi-demand has been from some that in a worst case scenario where feeds took place every 3.5 hours a baby would miss one feed compared to another infant on a q3h schedule. This fear though does not bear out in the study.
The experience in the centre I currently work at has been so positive that it is hard to find a patient that is not fed in such a way whether a physician orders the approach or not! What is truly fascinating to me is how effective the approach seemingly is and has been adopted again with very little evidence compared to that traditionally needed to change a practice in the neonatal world. Interestingly, although we can’t say for sure we have noticed year over year declines in length of stay for infants born with a birthweight of 1500 – 2000g since the introduction of semi-demand feeding. This could be a coincidence as this has not been the only practice change in our units but it certainly is interesting.
I was delighted to see a paper published this week on the topic by Wellington and Perlman. This was a Quality Improvement project entitled Infant Driven Feeding in Premature Infants: A Quality Improvement Project. This study compared three periods. The first was one in which physicians set the feeding schedule (PDF), the second a training period for a new system and the last the infant driven period (IDP). In the PDF phase, the physicians would order one oral feed a day, then two, three and so on when the full feed was attained at each prescribed level. In the IDF period an assessment sheet for feeding readiness would be completed before each attempt and the decision to offer an oral feed based on the perceived ability to feed at that time.
While this study was not an RCT it is a much larger group of patients than the study by McCain. This comparison was between 153 PDF vs 101 IDF patients. Feeding readiness assessments would start at 32 weeks CGA but feedings would not be offered by either approach until 33 weeks CGA similar to our own approach to feeding for the most part. The use of IDF made no difference to timing of first attempt at nipple feeding. The time to attain full nipple feeding was where significant differences in approach became apparent.
Time to reach full nipple feeding by gestational age at birth:
<28 weeks: IDF versus PDF group reached full NF 17 days sooner (374/7 vs 40 weeks; p=0.03)
28–316/7: IDF versus PDF group reached full NF 11 days sooner (35 4/7 vs 37 1/7 weeks; p<0.001)
≥32 weeks: IDF versus PDF group reached full NF 3 days sooner (354/7 vs 351/7 weeks; p=0.04).
Affect on discharge
<28 weeks GA, no difference between the IDF versus PDF group (41 3/7 vs 39 4/7 weeks; p=0.10).
28–316/7 weeks GA, IDF group were discharged 9 days earlier (366/7 vs 381/7 weeks; p<0.001).
≥32 weeks GA, the IDF group were discharged 3 days earlier (36 weeks vs 363/7 weeks;
Although the findings are clear there does need to be the usual acknowledgement that this is not the gold standard RCT but the practice change in the unit was done pretty carefully. The concept is one that makes a great deal of sense regardless. The lack of difference in discharge for the smallest infants makes some sense as it may well be apnea of prematurity that is the last to resolve. There is no disputing however the benefit in earlier discharge for the 28 – 31 6/7 week group. They achieve feeding earlier and go home faster. From a family centred approach this is the best of both worlds. One should not write off the use of this technique in the smallest infants either as they will have their care normalized much earlier with the NG tube being removed and the parents getting to participate and practice feeding much earlier in their course. Although not measured in this study, it would be intriguing to look at the number of patients who were admitted to hospital post discharge with failure to thrive.
Imagine the impact as well on hospital length of stay data if you multiple the reductions in length of stay by the total number of patients seen in these gestational age categories each year. This almost certainly can represent over a year of patient days for many hospitals.
As I see it the direction is clear. We should not force our premature infants to follow a schedule that works for us. Rather use the cues that only they can provide to tell us when and how much milk they desire. Both the parents, infants and our hospitals will benefit.