Umbilical Cord Cutting and Care for Newborns

Every birth experience is different but one thing is for sure: After a baby is born the umbilical cord will need to be cut. This flexible tube containing an artery and two blood vessels that supplied the baby with blood and nutrients in the womb will no longer be needed. Once it's snipped, you'll need to care for the little bit that remains—the umbilical stump—until it dries up and falls off. If that sounds a little icky, don't worry. What will be left behind is your baby's adorable little belly button. Here's what to expect when your newborn's cord is cut and how to care for it afterward.


To Delay or Not Delay

Cutting the umbilical cord at birth.
Photo © Moment Open/Getty Images

How soon your baby's cord is cut will depend largely on your doctor or midwife, but there has been a trend toward waiting for at least 30 to 60 seconds before making the snip. In 2017, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended this practice of delayed cord clamping because it's been found to increase hemoglobin levels at birth and improve the amount of iron in the blood during the first few months of life.


Cord Clamping

The umbilical cord will be held shut before it's cut in order to help seal off the open blood vessels. This usually is done with a plastic umbilical cord clamp, though it can also be a metal cord clamp or even cord tape. Your doctor or midwife probably will have a preferred type of clamp.

After it's been clamped, special scissors will be used to snip the cord close to the baby's belly, leaving behind a few inches of that eventually will dry up and fall away. The stump may be treated with a special dye that helps prevent infection, but this isn't standard at all hospitals or among all doctors and midwives. 


Preparing to Clean the Umbilical Cord

Part of daily newborn care includes cleaning the umbilical stump. A practical time is during a diaper change. Gather your supplies. You'll need cotton balls or swabs and either hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, depending on which you and practitioner prefer or what you already have in your medicine cabinet. Some doctors and midwives recommend starting with alcohol and only go to hydrogen peroxide the alcohol isn't drying enough.


Cleaning the Cord with a Cotton Swab

The most effective tool for cleaning the umbilical cord is a cotton swab since it can easily nestle into the nooks and crannies where the bottom of the stump is attached to your baby's belly. For optimal access, gently press down on the skin around the stump to reveal as much tissue as possible. 

Call your baby's doctor or pediatrician if there is a foul odor coming from the area of the umbilical cord, if there is redness around the cord, or if your baby is running a fever.


Cleaning the Cord with a Cotton Ball

If you'd prefer, you can use a cotton ball instead of a swab. The advantage of doing this is the ball will soak up a lot more of the alcohol or hydrogen peroxide that you can then gently squeeze around the stump. If you're nervous about digging around with a swab, this might be a better option. 

And of course, you can always use both: the cotton ball first to drip cleaning solution around the cord and the swab second to sweep around the edges, soak up excess liquid, and gently pick up dirt and debris.


The End Result of Cleaning

The dirt that you'll get from the cord area when cleaning, particularly with a cotton swab, can be worrisome. Do not panic. It is normal to have discoloration of the cotton swab or cotton ball. This photo shows you a normal cotton swab after cleaning.


Umbilical Cords Get Clothes Dirty Too

Even when the umbilical cord is healing well, it will still be weepy and leave marks on the clothing of your new baby. This photo is of the outfit of a baby who is a week old. Notice that there is residue from the cord on her outfit. The good news is that normal washing will remove this residue.


Before the Umbilical Cord Falls Off

Just before the umbilical cord falls off, you'll notice it is very dry. It will actually begin to shrivel nearly immediately. Every day it will get smaller and pull away from the center of the soon-to-be belly button. Do not pull it off. One diaper change you'll simply notice it's missing or in the diaper.


The Umbilical Cord Stump

The cord stump is what will be left once the cord has fallen off. It looks like a larger scab. You can simply throw it away. Though some parents choose to save it. Totally your choice. The above picture is what you can expect to find.

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