Meet the Irish woman who donated her placenta to help the work of search and rescue dogs

Celebs may like to eat theirs but Irish mums have discovered a novel and beneficial use for their afterbirth

Katriona Woods with her children Milo, 3 and Nancy, 6 months. Photo: Tony Gavin

Chrissie Russell

Two months before she was due to give birth, Becky Clissmann's midwife asked her a question no one had ever asked her. "She said: 'Have you thought about what you're doing with your placenta?'," laughs the Wicklow mum. "It was something I'd never even thought about before."

With her first child, Becky had a hospital delivery, where her afterbirth was "whisked away" following the birth, but since she was having a home birth for her second, what to do with the placenta was suddenly an important question.

"I knew I couldn't put it in the rubbish," says Becky, "and I know there's a whole group of people that are keen on encapsulating it and eating it, and I'm very respectful of that, but it's just not for me. At the same time I wanted to do something worthwhile. That's when my midwife told me about 'Tony Placenta'."

The man with the interesting moniker turned out to be one of only a handful of K9 trainers working with the Civil Defence's three trained Human Remains Detection (HRD) dogs.

While air-scenting dogs are used to locate living missing people, HRD dogs are crucial in searches for the deceased. To train them, they need small amounts of blood and tissue - which is where placentas come in.

"It had never occurred to me before that obviously search and rescue dogs need to know what human tissue smells like," says Becky. "But once my midwife explained to me, I thought 'fantastic!' I really don't need this anymore but wouldn't it be amazing if it could go towards helping someone else? I've been a card-carrying organ donor since my early 20s, this felt like an extension of that."

Katriona Woods from Kildare had been planning a home birth but ended up having a hospital delivery. "My midwife asked me what I wanted to do with my placenta. I didn't want to just dump it so I brought it home where it stayed in our freezer for ages!" she explains. "Eventually I got a number for a guy at the Civil Defence and he was delighted to get it. It's great to know I might have played some small part in a search and rescue operation, it's a shame more people don't know it's an option."

Until recently the afterbirth was very much an after-thought but lately that seems to be changing. More high-profile celebrities, such as Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, are bringing attention to encapsulating and eating their placentas following the birth, something that supposedly aids the post-delivery recovery, although experts advise strongly against it. A recent case of Strep B infection in a baby has been linked to the mother's ingestion of placenta pills.

But few people know about placenta donation. Last year, the Civil Defence assisted in 80 searches with their dog teams often a crucial part of those operations. Just one or two placentas are donated to them each year, but with just three HRD dogs in their team, they say there's no current need for donations to be any higher. Doula Krysia Lynch, co-ordinator for the Home Birth Association Ireland and co-chair of the Association for the Improvement in Maternity Services (AIMS), says there's a need for awareness of the options available for the placenta.

"If you're happy to leave it in hospital, that's fine," she says. "But I don't think there is enough transparency on the different options available or what happens to the placenta if you leave it in hospital.

"There seem to be different things happening in different hospitals. Some places keep it for a long time and I'm not sure what's happening there. In one hospital there's always a piece missing from the placenta when it comes back - what's happening to that bit? If you don't know, your mind conjures up a lot of possibilities.

"I've had women ask for their placentas to take home and they've been told they can't have it. I think more transparency and greater awareness of choice would be helpful," she says.

If you don't want to donate it, eat it or leave it with the hospital, another option is to freeze it and bury your placenta in the back garden, like Krysia did. "You have to bury it very deep," she explains. "We have an apple tree over one of our children's placentas and it bears apples around the time of year he was born. I like to think of it as a circle of life, it's still giving."

She reckons squeamish attitudes need to change. "We need to stop seeing the afterbirth as the 'yucky bit'," she explains. "I've been at births where once the baby's out the midwife will say 'that's us all done, this is just insignificant'. It's seen as being of very little consequence but it's a human organ that has supported your baby for the last nine months."

Irish mum Karen Tooher (now based in Dubai) wasn't worried about people's opinions when she opted to donate her placenta to train search and rescue dogs. "I'm not one for being concerned about that!" she laughs. "I think my friends and family are used to me doing things that wouldn't be mainstream when it comes to birth and parenting."

Placenta of use

1. Make it into jewellery - Freeze-dried placenta powder is cast in clear resin in a design of the mother's choosing with the gem the focal point in a pendant or pair of earrings. Mother/daughter matching rings are an increasingly popular option.

2. Art - Rochelle Hume recently made headlines for having her second child's umbilical cord crafted into the word 'Love' and framed. Trees are a popular image for placenta pictures.

3. Plant it - Deep enough that wildlife won't disturb it and to satisfy the regulations for disposing of a body part - so as not to spark an investigation if it's uncovered. Then mark the spot with a meaningful plant or tree.

4. Turn it into a teddy bear - London-based artist Alex Green cures placentas with salt to kill off bacteria, then softens it with eggs and tannins before filling with brown rice and sewing into cuddly bears.

5 . Make it into a balm - Reported to help C-section scars, reduce inflammation and promote healing.

6. Turn it into a T-shirt - Not the placenta exactly but there's a tutorial on Thingamababy on how to use the blood to craft a kid's tee. An ideal opportunity for the slogan 'my mam gave birth and all I got was this lousy t-shirt...'