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Caring for Your Baby’s Umbilical Cord

Posted: Babies & Toddlers » Baby Care | April 1st, 2004



By Elizabeth Pantley

After your baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut, a small piece remains attached to his belly. This piece dries and falls off, leaving the area to heal into your child’s belly button.

Keeping the area clean
The most common method for cleaning the umbilical cord stump is using rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball, gauze pad or cotton swab. A newer recommendation is to clean with clear water, which may work as well or even better. Ask your doctor what she recommends.

Many new parents are afraid of hurting their baby, so they just dab the top; however, this doesn’t give a thorough cleaning and can result in an infection. The key to proper cleaning is to push the stump up slightly and clean around the base. Don’t tug on it, but do get below it for a thorough cleaning.

You can then use a dry cotton ball or washcloth to dry the area, fan it with your hand or blow gently.

Clean the area three or four times a day or just make it a routine part of every diaper change for an easy way to remember. Continue this cleaning ritual for a few days after the cord falls off to ensure complete healing.

Let the air in
When you diaper your newborn, be certain to turn down the front waistband of the diaper so that the cord area is exposed to air. This helps the healing process and prevents any irritation from the diaper rubbing on the area.

What about bathtime?
Traditionally, parents have been cautioned against submerging their babies in water until after the cord falls off and heals. Many health professionals now believe that a tub bath is fine as long as you don’t let baby linger in the water too long and you dry the area when baby is out of the water.

If your doctor advises a sponge bath, though, follow these steps:

• Be sure the room is warm and free of drafts.
• Lay a towel on a flat surface such as the changing table or kitchen counter.
• Fill a bowl or sink with warm water.
• Have baby’s clothing, a new diaper and lotion or powder set up within arm’s reach.
• Lay your baby on the towel and undress her, keeping the areas you aren’t cleaning covered with a small towel and the diaper area covered.
• Wash and dry each part of her body with a warm, wet cloth.

What about infection?
If you suspect that your baby’s umbilical cord wound is infected, have your health care provider take a look. The signs of infection are:

• drainage from the cord area
• foul smell
• redness surrounding the cord
• active bleeding

What if the cord doesn’t fall off?
The cord will fall off sooner or later! Usually this happens within three to four weeks after birth, but it can take a few weeks longer. Don’t ever pull the cord off; let it happen naturally. Occasionally, when the cord falls off, it will leave a piece of pink scar tissue that takes a few more weeks to heal. Just continue to clean the area with alcohol and have your pediatrician check it out at your next well-baby visit.

Sometimes, a baby develops an umbilical hernia. This isn’t a result of how the cord was cut or how much your baby cries; it has to do with the size and shape of your baby’s umbilical cord opening. If your baby has a hernia, you’ll see a noticeable bulge that gets bigger when your baby cries and often disappears when he is lying down. It looks unusual, but it doesn’t cause any pain to your baby.

In most cases, this hernia shrinks and goes away without any treatment by the time your child is three years old. Methods of compression such as banding or taping are not effective in promoting healing and can even cause an infection, so it’s best to just let nature take its course. Your doctor will check your baby’s belly with each office visit and will let you know if anything needs to be done.

Excerpted from Gentle Baby Care by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, 2003). © Elizabeth Pantley.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the author of numerous parenting books, including the widely cited The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. Buy her books at Powells.com. She is a regular radio show guest and is quoted frequently on the web and in national family and women’s publications. Elizabeth lives in Washington state with her husband, their four children and her mother. Visit her at www.pantley.com/elizabeth.

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