Caring for Your Baby’s Umbilical Cord

Your newborn baby came home with a little something extra: the stump of an umbilical cord. If you are a first-time parent, you may be examining this extra bit and worrying about what the heck you are supposed to do with it. Stop worrying. The stump of the umbilical cord is perfectly natural and generally presents few problems if you care for it gently.

The umbilical cord stump is what is left after your obstetrician or midwife clamped and then cut the umbilical cord, the tube-like structure that is how your baby got nourishment while in the womb. Usually, the cord is clamped in two spots and then is cut between the clamps using sterile scissors. This process is generally done a few minutes or so after birth.

One of the clamps stays on the part of the umbilical cord still attached to your baby for a day or so. In the first day after your baby’s birth, the cord may bleed a little bit. The clamp is usually removed after the end of the cord has dried.

As your baby’s first days pass, the stump of the umbilical cord will start to shrink or shrivel up and will harden a bit. It may also turn colors, often turning yellow to start and then brown or grayish later. It may even turn purple and black before it falls off, which it will do on its own.

Taking Care of the Umbilical Cord and Belly Button

The best thing to do for our baby while waiting for the stump to fall off is to keep the area clean and dry. Do not pick at the stump or tug on it.

At one time, doctors and nurses advised mothers to wipe the end of the umbilical cord with a bit of rubbing alcohol to prevent infections. This is no longer recommended.

Do not give your baby tub baths until after the stump has fallen off. Give your baby gentle sponge baths instead, and only do that two or three times a week.

You don’t need to cover the stump with anything. Don’t bandage it and don’t tape over it. You don’t need to put any ointments or other skin products on the stump unless you are directed to do so by your baby’s healthcare provider.

Make sure your baby’s diapers do not rub on or cover the stump. Some disposable diapers made for newborns have a notch cut in the front top edge so that they don’t rub on the stump. If the diapers you have don’t have a notch, just fold down the top edge of the diaper so that it is below the stump. This fold will also help keep urine away from the umbilical cord.

If the umbilical stump gets dirty or if any urine or loose stool get on it, just clean the stump gently with some soap and water.

What to Watch Out For

When the stump falls off, you may see some crusting or a little bit of bleeding at the baby’s navel. If the bleeding continues, call your pediatrician.

The umbilical cord usually dries and falls off anywhere from 10 days to two weeks after the birth. This can take longer, but if the cord has not fallen off more than a few weeks after your baby was born, talk to your pediatrician or pediatric nurse.

Your baby’s umbilical cord may become infected, but this is rare. However, you should keep an eye on the area. Symptoms of an infected umbilical cord include redness around the stump or navel, swelling in the area, or signs that the area is tender, such as your baby wincing or crying if you touch the stump. An infection of the umbilical cord stump or the area around it is called omphalitis.

Call your pediatrician or pediatric nurse if there is any discharge that is yellow or that smells bad.

Then What?

Once your baby’s umbilical stump has fallen off, you can just throw it away. However, some families keep the stump along with other baby mementos like a lock of hair.

Some cultures have special traditions for the umbilical stump. The family may bury the stump near the home or bury it and then plant a tree or bush on top.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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