Caring for your baby\'s umbilical cord


Recent changes to cord care recommendations

As more and more research is done, advice regarding the care of babies umbilical cords changes. Because the umbilical cord may be a place for infection to enter your baby's body, it's important to care for it properly. However, several studies have confirmed that no special 'treatment' is needed to assist healing.

The popular practice of using rubbing alcohol is no longer recommended by many pediatricians and maternity hospitals, as studies have revealed that its use delays healing compared to leaving the cord to heal naturally.


How to care for your baby's cord

During the time your baby's cord is healing it's important to keep the area as clean and dry as possible.

What to do!

  • Wash your hands before touching your baby's cord. (Germs can be carried on your hands.)
  • Clean around your baby's belly button area at least once each day or more often if his cord looks sticky or moist. Use a Q-tip that has been dipped in cooled, boiled water. (Continue to clean his belly button for a few more days after his cord has fallen off.)
  • Dry the area using a dry Q-tip. (Don't use a dry cotton wool ball as it can leave fibers behind on the cord.)
  • Leave your baby's cord open to the air. Attach his diaper by folding down the top edge so that his navel area is exposed. Also roll up his shirt above his navel to allow air to circulate freely.
  • Observe for signs of infection (described further down in 'When to see your doctor').

What NOT to do!

  • Do not cover your baby's navel with anything, as this can increase the likelihood of infection by not allowing his cord to dry properly.
  • Avoid anything rubbing against your baby's cord, such as his diaper or clothing.
  • Never try to pull your baby's cord off. Allow it to fall off naturally, even if it's only hanging on by a thread.
  • Do not put oil, lotion or powders on or around your baby's cord.

Frequently asked questions about cord care

1.  How long will it take for my baby's cord to fall off?

Generally a baby's cord will fall off in 1 - 3 weeks, but some can take much longer than this. Your baby's cord will fall off when it is ready.

2.  My baby's cord is smelly and looks gooey.

This is not necessarily a sign of infection. This can occur if your baby's cord has remained moist for any length of time, possibly because it was covered by his diaper.

As your baby's cord is separating and for a few days after it has fallen off, a yellowish or pinkish 'oozy' discharge may be visible around the area. This is normal. There is no need for concern unless there are signs of infection or the drainage continues for more than a couple of days after your baby's cord has fallen off.

3.  I noticed a little bleeding around my baby's cord.

It's normal to see a little discharge or dried blood until the cord falls off.  Pinkish ooze can also be common but bright active bleeding is not. (Active bleeding is when you blot the blood and it's immediately replaced by more.) Bleeding can occur if the cord is pulled off prematurely.

4.  My baby's cord has fallen off but his belly button looks strange.

Once your baby's cord has fallen off, you may notice a small pinkish area in the bottom of his belly button, which does not look like the rest of his skin. This is to be expected. Within a day or two normal skin will grow over it.

A slight bulge around your baby's navel may be due to an umbilical hernia. This is due to a muscle weakness around the cord area. A small hernia of less than 1/2 inch will generally disappear as your baby grows. A larger hernia may need to be corrected surgically. (See your doctor if you are not sure.)

5.  Do I need to do something to make sure my baby's belly button stays in?

No matter what you do you will not change the shape of your baby's belly button. 90% of babies have 'innies' and 10% will have 'outies'.

Contrary to popular traditions, taping a coin or other flat object over your baby's navel does not help. As this practice increases the risk of your baby's cord area becoming infected it should be avoided.

6. Can I tub bath my baby while his cord is healing?

Advice regarding bathing a baby while a baby's cord is still attached varies. Some pediatricians and maternity hospitals encourage parents to sponge bathe their babies until the cord has fallen off. Others say it's OK to tub bath a baby provided the cord is encouraged to dry as soon as possible, by leaving it exposed.

Either way, it's probably not going to make a great deal of difference, so it's important not to worry. It is not a concern if your baby's cord gets wet occasionally, what is important is that your baby's cord does not remain moist, by covering it with his diaper or clothing. (Germs grow in moist environments.)

If your baby's cord becomes wet during bathing leave it to air dry or dry it with a hair dryer set on warm. (Take extreme care not to burn your baby.)


When to see a doctor

If you notice any of the following...

  • A reddened or inflamed cord area.
  • A swelling around your baby's navel.
  • Any discharge not corrected by cleaning and drying.
  • Active bleeding that does not settle quickly.
  • An odor from the cord not corrected by cleaning and drying.
  • Any sign that the area is painful for your baby.
  • If your baby is running a fever.
  • Before 'treating' your baby's cord with anything.

Treatments

In the past parents were instructed to use many different treatments that were believed to help speed up the drying out process and/or protect against infection. These include...

  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Hexachloraphane powder
  • Chlorhexidine or Betadine solution
  • Tincture of Iodine
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Triple Dyes
  • Silver Sulphadiazine
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Golden seal powder
  • Aztec Healing Clay

Whether you use a treatment or leave your baby's cord to heal naturally is a decision to discuss with your baby's doctor.

Written by Rowena Bennett
RN, RM, RPN, CHN, IBCLC, Grad Dip Health Promotion and author of 'Your Sleepless Baby: The Rescue Guide'

Added March 2004. Reviewed 2008; Sept 2013.