Cruise's baby girl enters a world of controversy

Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise were celebrating the birth of their first child last night, a girl they called Suri.

The name means "princess" in Hebrew or "red rose" in Persian.

Mother and baby, who weighed in at 7lb 7oz, were "doing well". But there was no comment on whether or not Holmes was silent during the birth in Los Angeles, as is demanded by their Scientology faith.

Cruise has kept the world entertained with the progress of his first biological child almost from the moment of conception. He delivered the latest controversy hours before the birth by revealing that he was planning to eat his firstborn's placenta and umbilical cord. The news startled even seasoned observers of the actor's eccentric behaviour.

In an interview with GQ Magazine, Cruise, 43, announced: "I'm gonna eat the placenta. I thought that would be good. Very nutritious. I'm gonna eat the cord and the placenta right there." He later played down his comments, telling a television audience: "We're not eating it." But by then, the debate over what some parenting websites call " placenta etiquette" had already been ignited.

Placentophagy, the eating of the placenta after birth, is common among mammals - and also in some human cultures.

Followers of Chinese medicine prepare it with rice wine, herbs and ginger before the mixture is dried, and it is then taken in capsules three times a day by the mother during the first month after birth.

And it became popular in some circles in the West during the 1970s, when it was associated with "earth mothers". Adherents of the practice believe that the placenta can help to prevent post-natal depression because it is rich in minerals and nutrients, particularly vitamin B6, which is know to ward off depression. Some believe that men and close family who eat the placenta feel more bonded with the baby.

Some German women mix their placentas into clarified butter and use it to treat their babies' skin ailments. The television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall caused outrage in 1998 when his TV Dinners programme showed him making a paté out of a woman's placenta, which was then eaten by her and her family. The Broadcasting Standards Commission censured the programme, saying it had "breached a convention" and that some complainants had compared it to cannibalism. The chef said he was happy with his creation, which he said tasted "not unlike tripe". Others have compared it to beef or foie gras.

One woman on the British website Mothers 35 Plus tells how her placenta was put in a blender with a glass of V8 fruit juice and served to her by her midwife. "To my delight and surprise, it was great!" she wrote.

"I felt myself filling up, taking back what I had created for baby's use while in the womb. I felt very natural, like a mama cat."

Not all experts believe that eating the placenta will do any good. Maggie Blott, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: " Animals eat their placenta to get nutrition, but when people are already well-nourished, there is no benefit. There is no reason to do it."

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