October 02, 2020

What is a Weak Placenta?

Reviewed by Jennifer Ford, MD

Pregnancy can be a time of great joy, and also, many questions. Lots of moms-to-be find themselves asking questions like, “Is this normal?” as their bodies experience a variety of changes.

While “weak placenta” isn’t an official medical term, it may be used in reference to a condition called Placental Insufficiency.

What is a Placenta?

The placenta is an organ that develops in a woman’s uterus during a pregnancy. It delivers oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby, while also removing waste products from baby’s blood.

The placenta attaches itself to the wall of the uterus and connects to the baby via the umbilical cord. It allows blood to flow from mom to baby, and back again, and although blood from both mom and baby are filtered through the placenta, they never actually mix.

The placenta plays a critical role during pregnancy, essentially connecting mom to baby, bridging the gap between the two for healthy growth and development.

The American Pregnancy Association estimates that the placenta weighs 1-2 pounds at the time of birth. It is delivered after the baby during labor, typically between 5 and 30 minutes after the baby is born.

Several factors can affect the health of the placenta, including:

  • Maternal age
  • High blood pressure
  • Twin or multiple pregnancy
  • Blood-clotting disorders
  • Previous uterine surgery or placental problems
  • Substance use
  • Abdominal trauma during pregnancy

What is Placental Insufficiency?

Placental insufficiency is a fairly uncommon, but serious complication that can occur in pregnancy. Also called placental dysfunction, or sometimes colloquially referred to as a “weak placenta,” it’s an issue that can occur when the placenta does not form properly or is damaged during pregnancy.

Placental insufficiency is marked by a reduction in the mother’s blood supply, and can also occur when a mother’s blood supply does not adequately increase over the course of her pregnancy.

When the placenta is not functioning properly, the baby does not receive adequate oxygen or nutrients from the mother’s bloodstream, which can prevent healthy fetal growth. This can eventually lead to low birth weight, premature birth, and birth defects, or stillbirth.

In addition to these, placental insufficiency carries an increased risk of complication for mom, which is why early diagnosis is critical.

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What Causes Placental Insufficiency?

We know that placental insufficiency is linked to issues with blood flow, but it can be caused by a variety of potential triggers. Maternal blood and vascular disorders can lead to placental insufficiency, but medications and lifestyle choices are possible causes as well.

The most commonly linked conditions to placental insufficiency are:

It is important to note that placental insufficiency may also occur if the placenta does not properly attach to the uterine wall during the first trimester, or if trauma or another condition causes the placenta to break away from the uterine wall too early. This is known as a placental abruption.

What are the Symptoms of Placental Insufficiency?

There are no immediate maternal symptoms as a result of placental insufficiency. However, because it can lead to reduced fetal growth, women may notice their abdomen seems or feels small for their gestational age or they may experience reduced or very little fetal movement.

Vaginal bleeding or contractions may occur if the placenta detaches.

You should consult your healthcare provider if you have any concerns or questions, or if you experience any of the following symptoms during pregnancy:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sever back pain
  • Uterine contractions

How is Placental Insufficiency Diagnosed?

Receiving proper prenatal care is a critical component to pregnancy health and the early diagnosis of pregnancy-related complications such as placental insufficiency.

Placental insufficiency is difficult to diagnose, but it could be suspected via ultrasound by monitoring the growth of the baby, or if there are abnormalities shown on a fetal nonstress test.

While placental insufficiency cannot be cured, it can be managed, which is why routine prenatal care is so critically important.

Learn More or Seek Care with Baptist Health

Most problems that affect the placenta can’t be directly prevented, but there are things you can do to promote a healthier pregnancy and better outcomes for mom and baby. One of the most important things you can do as a mom-to-be is to establish care early with a trusted OB/GYN who can monitor the health of you and your growing baby throughout your entire pregnancy and delivery.

Baptist Health has a passion for helping moms, and is known for providing a high level of patient-centered care before, during and after your baby is born. Learn more about our Mother & Baby Care Services or find a provider near you.

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