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What is an Umbilical Cord?

What is an Umbilical Cord?

Pregnancy
Nov 27, 2017

Likened to a telephone cord on an old rotary phone (ask your mom what that is), the umbilical cord is what carries oxygen and nutrients to your baby and waste and carbon dioxide back through the placenta to the pregnant mother’s blood stream. It typically consists of two veins and an artery, called a three vessel cord, but some babies only have one vein and thus a two vessel umbilical cord. These vessels are enclosed and protected by Wharton’s Jelly and covered in a layer of membrane called the amnion.

During the last few weeks of pregnancy, the placenta will pass your antibodies to the fetus through the umbilical cord to kickstart your baby’s immune system, giving some level of protection from infection until childhood vaccinations can occur.

Since at birth one third of baby’s blood supply remains in the placenta, the practice of delayed cord clamping has become prevalent in recent years. Delayed cord clamping of the umbilical cord is simply a waiting period of no less than 60 seconds before the cord is clamped and cut. Preferably your doctor or midwife will wait until the cord stops pulsating in it’s entirety and becomes white. You can discuss this option with your healthcare provider prenatally to see if it is routine, or if there may be circumstances where it may not be possible.

On average an umbilical cord is about 50 cm, or 20 inches long, and its about 2 to 3 cm, or ¾ to 1 ¼ inches, in diameter. Every baby’s umbilical cord will be unique, some longer or shorter, some thicker or thinner.

After the cord is cut, your baby will have an umbilical stump, and this will eventually form your infant’s belly button. The umbilical cord stump will dry and fall off a few days to a few weeks after delivery. Don't use rubbing alcohol to clean the stump, as researchers have found that untreated cords heal faster than alcohol-swabbed cords and carry no more risk of infection. You don’t have to do anything special, other than gently clean around the sides of the stump and the skin around it with water and mild soap and then let it air dry. Fold down the front of your baby’s diaper to avoid covering, or irritating, the stump and most newborn diapers have a little cut-out specifically for this purpose. Sponge baths might be most practical during the healing process, but you can bathe your baby in a baby tub or sink too. It's normal to see a little blood near the stump during the healing process and when the cord stump falls off; however, contact your care provider if the umbilical area oozes pus or the surrounding skin becomes red and swollen.

Your baby’s umbilical cord is their lifeline in utero, and one of mother nature’s most amazing designs.

We encourage you to learn more about our "What in the World" series. Please see our A to Z index for a whole host of pregnancy, postpartum, and parenting information and terminology.


Loree Siermachesky works as a multi-certified labour and postpartum doula, certified Lamaze childbirth educator, certified breastfeeding counselor, certified placenta encapsulation specialist and a certified car seat technician in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. She has had the honour of attending over 1400 births in the last 20 years. She is well-known and greatly respected by the medical providers in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Brooks, Taber, and Calgary. She cares deeply for this profession and even more for her clientele, honoring them in whatever method of birth they choose, or helping them transition to new parenthood as they wish.