During pregnancy the umbilical cord supplies your developing baby with nutrients and oxygen, acting as a lifeline between her body and the placenta. Once your baby is born, however, she doesn’t need her umbilical cord any longer.
Cutting the umbilical cord
Because the umbilical cord is no longer needed now that your baby is out of the womb, her cord is clamped and cut off close to her navel. Before cutting the cord, the doctor clamps it in 2 places to minimise bleeding. The clamp will be left on until the cord dries up, which is usually 3 or 4 days, says registered nurse and childbirth educator, Barbara Constantinou.
When it is removed there may be a small amount a bleeding. Cutting the cord does not cause you or your baby any pain because, like your hair or nails, it doesn’t have nerve endings.
The small stump that is left behind is a part of her umbilical cord that eventually dries up and falls off. It’s important that you care for the umbilical cord stump properly until it falls off, which should happen within the first 10 days. However, Barbara has known babies whose umbilical cord stumps only fell off after 20 days.
Looking after the stump
Until your baby’s umbilical cord stump falls of be sure to:
Keep it clean:
“Clean your baby’s stump at every nappy change and after every bath,” says Barbara. “But you don’t have to do this at night nappy changes – then it’s better that everyone gets some sleep.”
The way to do this, she says, is to lift the cord up and, using surgical spirits and cotton wool or surgical alcohol swabs, clean around the cord and at the bottom.
“The base of the cord becomes mucky and oozes; make sure it is clean and don’t be scared to go right to the base where it attaches and clean it really well,” she says
Keep it dry:
Expose the stump to air whenever possible; if it’s warm, dress your baby in a nappy and T-shirt to improve air circulation around the stump. Fold the top of your baby’s nappy down in the front so that it doesn’t rub against her stump, and so that it’s exposed to air and not urine.
Barbara also recommends exposing the stump to the sun, through a window, for 5 minutes.
Top and tail:
Try to avoid giving your baby a full bath during this time
Let the stump fall by itself:
Don’t tug on it, even if it’s hanging by a thread. It will fall off naturally. “After the cord falls off it may still bleed and may ooze slightly. Clean this with surgical spirits and keep an eye out for infection,” says Barabara.
Sometimes a few bits of lumpy flesh remain behind after the cord has fallen off. These may disappear naturally, or need to be treated by a doctor.
When things go wrong
Barbara cautions that umbilical cord stumps that are not cleaned well or that aren’t cleaned at all can become infected.
“If the base of the cord is infected you will need to apply an antibiotic cream, which usually clears the infection. If not, the baby has to go onto an oral antibiotic. I personally prefer not to use powders for the cord as with these the base of the cord does not get cleaned properly, which is the area that gets infected,” says Barbara.
It’s normal to see a bit of dried blood near the stump, but contact your baby’s doctor if:
- Your baby develops a fever
- There is bleeding from the end of the cord or the area near the skin
- The stump oozes yellowish pus
- There is swelling or redness around your baby’s navel, or it smells bad
- There are signs that the area around your baby’s navel is painful.
It may not be your favourite thing to do but cleaning her umbilical cord stump well is important. Barbara says, “Don’t be afraid; it’s a normal part of a newborn baby.”
Barbara Constantinou, Bedfordview Mother and Baby Centre, 011 455 5468.