How To Care For Baby's Umbilical Cord

Learn how to care for baby's umbilical cord stump, when you can expect it to fall off, and what to know when it does

When baby is in the womb, they get all their nutrients and oxygen from you via the umbilical cord. But when baby's born, they won't need the cord anymore, so doctors clip it shortly after birth.

After baby's umbilical cord is cut, though, they'll still be left with an umbilical cord stump. This stump needs to be treated with care. Today, we'll cover how to care for baby's umbilical cord stump, when you can expect it to fall off, and what to know when it does.

Caring For Baby's Umbilical Cord Stump: Leave It Alone And Be Careful

The number one rule when caring for baby's umbilical cord stump is to leave it be and let it fall off on its own.

Baby's umbilical cord will usually dry up and fall off when baby is 1-3 weeks old.

In the meantime, you'll need to be gentle with the stump.

Follow these tips:

Keep the stump dry

You might have heard about frequently swabbing the umbilical cord stump with alcohol, or applying an ointment to the stump. But research has now shown that it's best to skip the ointment and alcohol.

Instead, keep the cord stump dry. This way, the bacteria that help the cord separate can thrive. And the drier the stump stays, the easier it is for the stump to fall off on its own.

Only give sponge baths

Until baby's stump falls off, skipping the baby tub is the best call.

Stick to sponge baths instead. When giving a sponge bath, you gently wash baby with a wet washcloth and mild soap while baby lays on plush towels.

This way, it's easier to keep the umbilical cord stump dry.

During a sponge bath, you can gently wash the area around the umbilical cord stump to clean off crustiness. But skip the soap in this area, and don't wash the stump itself.

For the full details on how to give a sponge bath, please read our article on safely bathing your newborn.

Air out the stump

Another way to keep the stump dry is to make sure it gets plenty of exposure to the air. So, undress baby down to the diaper regularly, and let the stump air out.

Diaper carefully

Speaking of the diaper, make sure that baby's diapers don't cover the stump.

Either pick diapers that feature a waistband notch (made so the cord can stick out), or fold down the front of the diaper so the cord is exposed. This way, the stump won't get rubbed and irritated, and it'll be easy to expose it to the air.

And be sure to change baby's wet and dirty diapers as soon as you can. That way, they won't leak and irritate the cord stump.

Choose loose-fitting clothing

As for clothing, it's best to choose loose-fitting outfits that will give the stump room to breathe.

It's also better to pick outfits that snap on the side and not at the crotch (sometimes called kimono-style onesies) as crotch snaps can make things too tight in the stump area.

There are even special outfits that provide a window so the stump can stay exposed to the air --- although these aren't necessary, they may help.

Sharp Healthcare provides step-by-step instructions on how to care for a baby's umbilical cord in this video:

Avoid touching, and never pull

We've said this before, but it's important enough to repeat. Even if baby's cord stump seems extremely loose, don't touch or pull it! Let it dry and fall out on its own.

If you pull off the stump before it's ready to fall, this could cause the area to keep bleeding. Bleeding in this area requires immediate medical attention --- call your pediatrician if this happens.

If cleaning is needed, handle with care!

The only exception to the "don't touch" rule is if baby's umbilical cord stump is dirty.

If the stump gets dirty, you can gently dab at it with a wet washcloth (no soap!). Then, gently use a dry washcloth to pat it dry.

Of course, the stump usually won't get dirty, so you probably won't have any reason to touch it at all.

Watch for signs of an infection (omphalitis)

Umbilical cord stump infections are rare, but they are serious and require immediate emergency attention.

If you notice any of these signs of infection, call your pediatrician as soon as possible:

  • Pus oozing from the stump
  • A lump filled with fluid, on or near the stump
  • Cloudy discharge with an unpleasant smell
  • Bleeding of the stump
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Fever
  • Swelling or redness at or around the cord

When The Stump Falls Off

Once baby's umbilical cord stump finally falls off, it will leave behind baby's belly button.

At this point, you'll want to gently clean the belly button twice a day, using a wet washcloth or cotton swab. Be careful --- don't scrub too hard, and don't do any cleaning if the belly button looks like an open wound.

Keep in mind that the belly button is still healing.

It's completely normal to see a little bit of blood when baby's cord stump finally falls off. A small, raw-looking spot is normal too, and so is a bit of clear ooze. After all, the stump is almost like a scab that protects a healing wound.

But if you see any of the following when the stump falls off, these are causes for concern, and you should contact your pediatrician immediately:

  • A small amount of bleeding that lasts 3 or more days
  • Heavier bleeding that lasts more than 10 minutes
  • A blood stain bigger than 2 inches across

You should also call your pediatrician if you notice any signs that the area may be infected, including cloudy discharge and pus.

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