It isn't just their babies some women expect to bring home after giving birth.
A small but growing group of mothers also want to leave with the placenta, a position that can put them in conflict with hospitals that traditionally treat the afterbirth as medical waste.
Most of the women seek to encapsulate their placentas—which involves drying the organ and putting it into pill form—a niche practice that proponents believe can help postpartum women. Most medical experts say there is no scientific evidence backing the claim.
Emily Ziff gave birth to her first child at NYU Langone Medical Center in January. But the 33-year-old resident of Williamburg, Brooklyn, said she was told the placenta would be sent to a morgue, where she would have to get a licensed funeral director to obtain it for her.
"I think women should be able to keep their placentas if they want to, especially given that the Department of Health seems to have no issue with it," Ms. Ziff said.
"That suggests to me that from a public health standpoint, there isn't an issue there." Ms. Ziff ultimately was able to obtain the services of a funeral director. A doula, or birth coach, subsequently made her placenta into about 100 pills, which she still sometimes takes.
New York state law allows hospitals to release healthy placentas. Some hospitals require patients to sign waivers; others readily release placentas. And others don't have any protocols at all, leading to ranging practices that depend on which doctor or nurse is on staff that day.
While some cultures have a history of burying placentas or consuming them, other women engage in the practice for perceived homeopathic benefits.
Still, most patients will say they are requesting the placenta for cultural or religious reasons because the placenta then won't be classified as biomedical waste under New York state Health Department rules.
Placenta encapsulation is a relatively new practice in Western cultures, particularly on the East Coast, but one that local doulas say is slowly growing in popularity. It is believed to have Chinese origins and generally involves steaming and dehydrating the placenta and grinding it up into a powder that is put into capsules. Some women also get tinctures made. Supporters believe the nutrients, proteins and hormones in the afterbirth help avoid postpartum depression, increase milk production and facilitate overall recovery.
Lisa Fortin, a Williamsburg-based doula, has started a petition on Change.org urging NYU Langone Medical Center to release healthy placentas. The petition has been signed by more than 350 women.
"The wording from New York state definitely stops short from giving moms the right to take their placentas home, and frankly that's something I would like to see changed," Ms. Fortin said. NYU is in the process of reviewing its policy to see if changes can be made "to simplify such requests without endangering public health," Robert Press, chief medical officer and patient safety officer, said in an email.
"Our policy was designed to balance a new mother's desire for her baby's placenta against the risk of transmitting a disease to the public, as a placenta has the same risks associated with medical waste," he said.
A New York Downtown Hospital representative said the hospital is revising all of its maternal child health policies. He said he didn't know the current policy.
The birthing center at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan allows mothers to pick up their placentas in the pathology department after they sign a form.
A spokeswoman for Continuum, the hospital system overseeing Roosevelt, said the hospital is trying to change the policy so mothers can sign the form while in the birthing center.
The issue extends into New Jersey, where there is no law addressing placentas.
Nikole Orlando, who is a postpartum doula based in Springfield, N.J., said she's had many clients who have faced roadblocks. "I've had moms who have been threatened," she said. "In another hospital a woman threatened to call the police, and they finally caved in."
Teran Chartier, a 35-year-old mother in Glen Rock, N.J., said when she was getting ready to deliver at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, she kept getting conflicting information. Eventually, a couple of days before giving birth in November, she was told she would have to obtain the placenta from a funeral home. "To contact a funeral home, to me it just seemed crazy," she said.
A spokeswoman for Valley Hospital said in a voice mail that the hospital doesn't release placentas. "We consider it just safer for staff and even for families," she said. "We will release them to a funeral home if the family wants to dispose of it in a particular manner. But that's it."
Ms. Orlando said Hackensack University Medical Center Women's Hospital has been particularly difficult for some of her clients.
But Dr. Abdulla Al-Khan, section chief of maternal fetal medicine and surgery, insisted that's not the case. "As long as it doesn't have to be tested and the physician has no problem with that, the patient can do whatever they want with it," he said.
Mr. Al-Khan said he has not heard of requests for encapsulation. "From a scientific perspective I don't think there's any evidence that that has shown to be of any benefit."