I’ll never forget when, nine years ago, I met a woman who spoke very proudly of her “radically” natural childbirth. This wasn’t a midwife-attended drug-free labor in a hospital or birthing center or even a house– she gave birth in the woods with only her husband assisting. Her commitment to the all-natural experience didn’t stop there. After her daughter’s delivery, she practiced “lotus birth,” meaning that instead of cutting the umbilical cord and safely disposing of the placenta, she left it attached to her daughter’s body until it rotted off several days later. It’s uncommon, it’s mostly unheard-of, and I admit that I think it’s kind of gross, but is there any benefit to lotus birth?
That, of course, depends who you ask. Proponents of lotus birth claim that the practice has benefits for the baby and mother. In 2013, midwife consultant Mary Ceallaigh told the New York Post that lotus birth benefits the baby by lowering the risk of infection (since there’s no wound or cut created by severing the cord) and by boosting the amount of iron and nutrition that the baby gets in its first days of life. Ceallaigh also compares cutting the cord to female genital mutilation and claims that that lotus birth spiritually healthier for mom, since nature, instead of a pair of scissors, gets the privilege of severing the maternal bond.
All of these benefits sound great in principle, but there’s little to no scientific evidence backing the claims made by Ms. Ceallaigh and other proponents of lotus birth– and the claims defy logic. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists notes that there’s no reason to believe that lotus birth could reduce the risk of infection; in fact, it may raise it. RCOG states, “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. The placenta is particularly prone to infection as it contains blood.”
That blood is also of little to no use after the baby’s birth. While there’s fairly sound scientific evidence for the increasingly common practice of “delayed cord clamping”– allowing a cord to stop pulsating before cutting it– there’s no evidence that the placenta continues providing blood or nutrients to the baby after that point. After it stops pulsing and is expelled from the mother’s body, the placenta becomes dead tissue. It does not pump oxygen, iron, immune factors, or nutrients to the baby’s body. It simply rots. Once the baby is born, the placenta’s important job is already done.
The spiritual and emotional benefits of lotus birth also seem rather unfounded. The claim that lotus birth is inherently more “natural” runs in contradiction to patterns seen throughout nature. Almost all human cultures have regularly chosen to sever the umbilical cord rather than allowing it to rot. Absolutely all placental mammals do the same, using their teeth to cut the cord (and sometimes even consume the afterbirth). Cutting the cord is as natural a part of life as childbirth itself; it isn’t a modern or even uniquely human intervention. There’s also no evidence that moms who choose lotus birth have better emotional health, stronger bonds with their babies, or lower rates of postpartum depression than moms who have the umbilical cords cut after childbirth.
Despite the supposed benefits touted by extreme proponents of natural birth, there’s no plausible reason to promote lotus birth as a practice. It not only has no known or likely benefits, but it may actually endanger babies by increasing the risk of infection– not to mention the inconvenience of carrying around a rotting human organ for as long as two weeks. While natural birth and delayed cord clamping are a reasonable, safe, and healthy option for the majority of women, there’s no good reason to practice lotus birth. If you’re interested in lotus birth, talk to your doctor or midwife about other ways to improve your baby’s health and promote postpartum bonding.