In our BabyNatal Practical Baby Care classes we cover newborn appearance, and a key part of your baby’s appearance after birth (besides the fact that they are so cute, cuddly, beautiful and absolutely perfect) is that they will have some umbilical cord still attached to their tummy. Umbilical cords are not the typical thing that’s shown on TV, where babies who are meant to be newborn are in reality a few months old, so unless you’ve had a baby already or had the pleasure to be the birth partner for someone else, chances are that most of us haven’t seen one before and don’t know much about it.
So if you’ve ever wondered what the umbilical cord is all about, here are some answers for you…
1. A baby with the cord wrapped around his or her neck is usually not in danger
When the umbilical cord is wrapped around a baby’s neck during childbirth, this is called a nuchal cord. Although it may be scary to see this (for a parent or birth partner), we should remember that nuchal cords are very common, with as many as one out of three babies born with one, and for most of whom it causes no problem. After all, cords can be quite long, and with the somersaults that our babies do in the womb it’s no surprise that they can all get a bit tangled up – some babies even have them wrapped around their ankles or waist!
The umbilical cord (from the 6th week of pregnancy and until it’s cut) connects the baby with the placenta and supplies the baby with oxygen and nutrients (as well as providing a way for the baby to eliminate their waste while in the womb) during pregnancy, birth and the few minutes afterwards.
For those of you who are wondering how long a cord can really be, it is said that they reach up to approximately 130cm, but an average cord are around 50-60cm, so usually long enough to allow you to hold your baby skin-to-skin once they’re born but before the placenta is born.
2. The cord doesn’t contain nerve endings, so it doesn’t hurt when tied, clamped, or cut
A normal, healthy umbilical cord is filled with a substance called Wharton’s jelly. This is a soft, gelatinous substance which protects the blood vessels inside the cord, and it helps to protect the cord against compression as well as knots (which are very rare), so for the vast majority of babies, the cord is well protected.
After birth, because the baby is now able to breathe through their lungs, eat, and empty their bladder and bowel independently, the cord becomes redundant. There are no nerve fibres in the cord, so once it’s tied, clamped or cut, you can be sure that your baby will not feel a thing!
3. It can be tied or clamped before being cut…
Most of us are probably used to the notion of the umbilical cord being clamped with a hospital-provided sterile plastic clamp, but cord ties are becoming more and more popular, and are considered by a lot parents as something ‘nicer’ to be used to tie the cord instead, before it’s cut. Some parents believe they must be more comfortable for baby to ‘wear’ than a hard plastic clamp, and therefore gentler on their skin for the few days they’re staying on. They can also be made in a variety of colours and designs (and they make wonderful keepsakes) and can even be customised to match a home-made baby hat or friendship bracelet for the parents or a sibling, for example. Those against cord ties often raise concerns around the strings being made of cotton or wool (i.e. natural materials) and therefore not sterile enough – fabric can be at risk of harbouring bacteria, but a way many have found to get around that is to treat the tie in advance by sterilising it with boiling water, placing it in an airtight container and freezing it. You’ll just need to make a note to bring it with you if you’re having a hospital birth! And remember, not all midwives will have used or seen a tie before, so if you intend on using one for your baby it’s worth checking in advance whether your midwives are happy to use one on your baby for you, or whether they are happy to let you do it, if you feel confident to.
Just as a side note, (and we’re not suggesting you use any of these), in some countries, instead of sterile plastic clamps, dental floss, rubber bands or tape are used, so you can see there are different ways to achieve the same result…
4. …Or it can be just left as it is
Believe it or not, you can decide to NOT cut the cord. Yes, that’s right. Have you ever heard of a lotus birth? You can decide to leave the umbilical cord untied, unclamped and uncut after birth, so that the baby is left attached to the placenta until the cord naturally separates at the umbilicus. This does mean that you need to carry the placenta around with the baby (after all they are still attached) – this of course brings some logistical implications, which you should think about if you’re planning a lotus birth. And yes, there are things that you can do to deal with the odour from the placenta as its tissue slowly becomes to die.
If you want to have a lotus birth, do thoroughly research this and discuss it with your birth professionals. Because the placenta contains blood it is prone to infection, so there is a risk that bacteria forming in the placenta may travel to the baby through the umbilical vein. For this reason, it is recommended that the baby is monitored closely for infection. The bottom line is, we are more familiar with the concept of cutting the cord, but a baby can live with the cord still attached to them – the cord will eventually fall off on its own.
5. All you need to do is to keep it dry and clean
Although it doesn’t hurt, the stump is susceptible to infection, so it’s important to keep it dry and clean, and therefore away from the content of the nappy, if at all possible. If it does get wet or dirty, don’t worry – just try and wipe it as gently as you can, being careful not to pull the skin and patting it dry with a clean cloth or towel. This doesn’t mean that you can’t give the baby a bath until the stump has completely fallen off either, but if you do, you should try and follow the same care and recommendations. The stump should fall off on its own within 5 to 15 days, (and you don’t need to apply anything to it), and thanks to Mother Nature your baby will be left with a nice, clean belly button!
6. Remember that infections are rare, but do keep an eye out for any symptoms!
If you notice any redness, warmth, swelling, tenderness around the belly button, or a lot of discharge from it that is also foul smelling, you should get your baby checked as soon as you possible. These could be symptoms of a condition known as omphalitis (an infection of the umbilical stump and surrounding area), and as such it must be promptly checked and treated. Equally, if you spot more than a little dried blood around your baby’s belly button and notice persistent and significant bleeding, you should seek your doctor’s advice.