The umbilical cord of your baby, also referred to as their lifeline, connects you to your baby through the placenta. Its main function is to transport oxygen and nutrients to your baby’s body while also eliminating any waste material.The development of the umbilical cord starts when you are around four weeks pregnant and can reach up to 22 inches in length. It is crucial to understand the significance of your baby’s umbilical cord, how to recognize if it is healthy, and when it might detach.
What Is the Umbilical Cord?
According to Amber Samuel, M.D., who is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and the medical director at Pediatrix Medical Group, the umbilical cord is a tubular structure that comprises of three blood vessels. These vessels consist of two uterine arteries that convey waste from the baby to the placenta, as well as a vein that transports nutrients and oxygen from the placenta to the baby. Asnat Walfisch, M.D., who is an obstetrician-gynecologist and the director of obstetrics and gynecology at Beilinson Hospital, states that the umbilical cord is indispensable for the baby’s growth, development, and survival while in the uterus. However, once the baby is born and can breathe air and take milk, the umbilical cord becomes redundant.
Why Is the Umbilical Cord Important?
Dr. Samuel explains that the umbilical cord serves as a vital connection between the mother and baby during pregnancy. It functions as a source of glucose, oxygen and cell-building blocks while simultaneously removing waste products, such as carbon dioxide. The pregnancy cannot continue without this connection as there would be no means of communication between the mother’s circulation and the baby. Board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, Wendy Goodall McDonald, M.D., emphasizes the importance of the umbilical cord, stating that it is as crucial as our ability to breathe, as it is responsible for nourishing the growing fetus with oxygen and nutrition.
Signs of a Healthy Umbilical Cord
Dr. Samuel explains that it’s impossible to determine the health of a baby’s umbilical cord just by looking at the pregnant belly, but an ultrasound can easily track its development. During the ultrasound, the size and length of the cord are examined, as well as its position in relation to the placenta, fetal abdomen, and cervix. The structure, number of vessels, and signs of knots or cysts are also evaluated. Regular prenatal care with ultrasounds allows for fetal development to be monitored starting as early as 12 weeks. The anatomy ultrasound, which usually takes place around 20 weeks of pregnancy, is when the cord can be checked.
According to Michael Platt-Faulkner, D.O., an OB-GYN at St. Elizabeth’s Healthcare, the umbilical cord is usually very strong due to its protective gelatinous covering. However, there are instances where the umbilical cord can be weaker due to abnormal connections to the placenta or the absence of the protective jelly. Fortunately, abnormalities of the umbilical cord can be detected through ultrasound, and further testing and monitoring can be conducted if necessary.
Dr. Platt-Faulkner states that a normal umbilical cord should consist of three blood vessels and should be inserted into the middle part of the placenta. In cases where one of the vessels is absent, it usually does not cause any complications during pregnancy or delivery. However, if any abnormalities are detected during an ultrasound, further medical examination and observation may be required.
When Does the Umbilical Cord Fall Off?
Typically, the umbilical cord is severed shortly after birth, but a small segment remains attached. It usually detaches on its own within 10 to 14 days, but it may take up to 21 days. It is considered normal even if it detaches before the 7th day, so there is no need for concern.
During the period when you are waiting for the umbilical cord to fall off, your main responsibility is to maintain the cleanliness and dryness of the stump. For this reason, most pediatricians advise parents to give their baby a sponge bath. It is also important to check the baby’s skin around the base of the cord at least once a day for any signs of redness or unusual drainage. Rolling down the diaper and dressing the baby gently can also help reduce friction in the abdominal area. As the cord dries up, it may change color from a shiny yellowish tint to brown or gray, which is a normal part of the drying process. However, if you have any concerns, it’s best to seek advice from a pediatrician or health care provider who can assess whether the umbilical cord is healing properly.
When to Call a Health Care Provider
In most cases, the umbilical cord operates properly and there is no need to worry. Even if there are true knots in the umbilical cord, which happen in under 1% of births, it is usually not a significant concern. However, if you are expecting and observe that your baby is not moving as much as usual, it may indicate a problem with the umbilical cord. Dr. Samuel recommends informing a healthcare professional about decreased or absent fetal movement during pregnancy.
Once your newborn arrives, it is normal for the umbilical cord to dry and detach naturally. However, if the cord remains attached for more than three weeks, it is advisable to contact your healthcare provider. Additionally, if your baby has a tiny red lump of scar tissue, known as a granuloma, still present on their belly button after the cord has fallen off, it may require medical attention. Although this condition usually resolves on its own, if it persists, a healthcare provider may need to cauterize the tissue.
Additional indications of possible problems with the umbilical cord include inflammation, enlargement, discharge of pus or other substances, and an unpleasant odor. Some infants may experience discomfort or cry when the cord area is stimulated. If any of these symptoms are observed, it is recommended to contact a pediatrician or healthcare provider as it may be an indication of an infection, according to Dr. McDonald. “At times, there might be a usual drainage from the base of the cord and it could have a slight scent,” she remarks. “But if you detect anything more potent, there is no harm in checking it out.”