Umbilical cord care in babies

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The umbilical cord is probably the only part of the human body that, after we’re born, we no longer need.

Hi, I’m Dr Joe.

As we know, when a baby is developing in the womb it gets all its nutrients from the mother through what we call the placenta within the uterus, and that flows to baby by the umbilical cord. As soon as you’re born, that connection is severed and part of what happens at birth is cutting off the umbilical cord. We’ve all been through it, most of us obviously won’t remember, we were too young at the time.

When the cord is cut, it’s done in such a way that a little stump remains and that will generally remain for the first 2 weeks after birth.

Now parents often say, “what do I need to do about this stump?” “Is there anything I need to do: do I need to treat it, do I need to clean it?” “What should I be doing with it?” Short answer is less is more.

Over the course of about 2 weeks the colour will generally change from a yellowish pinkish skin colour, through to a green, a brown and eventually black. And part of that is because it is not getting any more circulation. So it’s actually becoming like a bit of dead skin that will, when it’s ready, fall off. And that will generally happen within the first 2 weeks or thereabouts.

newborn umbilical cord careClick on the image to enlarge

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There’s nothing specific that you need to do to encourage it, and please, please resist the temptation to try and speed the process up. Just let nature take its course.

When baby has a bath, probably sponge baths are best in the early stages of life, just clean around the area as much as you bath your baby in general, and pat dry at the end. So you don’t want to be rubbing it or doing anything like that.

You don’t need to use any special soaps, or any special antiseptics, or really applying anything in that area that you’re not using generally for your baby. Again, it will take a couple of weeks. Just let nature take its course.

You don’t need any special dressings. If the nappy is rising up a little bit high and you want to put a protective barrier between it and the nappy, you can but it’s often not needed.

What if things aren’t going to plan? What are some pointers?

Can the area get infected? It is possible; it’s not that common. Signs can be an odour or smell associated with the area, maybe some yellowish pus or discharge, and if the surrounding skin is going red in colour. Essentially, all the same signs of any skin infection, whether it’s at the umbilicus or, the same, if one had a cut or graze.

If any of those things are happening then it’s a good idea to go along and see your doctor. In some instances it may be just as simple as using an antiseptic dressing that can be applied. In some cases it is possible that an antibiotic will be needed by mouth. I’ve got to say that’s going to be the exception rather than the rule but if there is infection and it’s not responding then that can be done and will heal up quite quickly.

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So we don’t need to be too worried in any way about the umbilical stump. It is just a normal part of life and it will take usually up to 2 weeks to fall off, and nature very much will run the show and take its course. You really just need, as a parent, to stand back and let the miracle of nature unfold.

However, if any of the warning signs we spoke about – redness, discharge, oozing, foul odour – are appearing then trot along to see your doctor and it will be fairly straight forward to treat, if that’s necessary.

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Date Created: June 17, 2014 Date Modified: November 14, 2018 Date Reviewed: June 17, 2014