Newborns - Proper Umbilical Cord Care

Before you begin to care for your newborn's umbilical cord, nature is already doing that for you. Through this attachment a mother is supplying her baby with all the nutrients it requires during the critical gestation period. Then, when birth occurs, doctors care for it by clamping, snipping and tying. But the baby feels no pain, since nature has provided a lack of pain-sensitive nerve fibers in the cord.

Now it's your turn.

After birth, the newborn's umbilical cord may change color. It can alter from green to brown to black. Not to worry! This is all part of the natural process as the cord dries out in preparation for falling off. This typically takes about 1-2 weeks.

During those days the only care needed is to keep the area clean and avoid bumping the cord.

The section around the navel is comprised of sensitive skin. Just press on your own navel even as an adult and you'll see. It takes only modest pressure to feel discomfort. Babies are, naturally, a little more tender. No need to be paranoid, just cautious.

Keeping the cord area clean will help prevent infection. The skin is the body's first line of defense against disease. It provides a physical barrier against bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms that are seen as 'foreign invaders' that provoke the immune system into a response.

But a baby's immune system is still under considerable development for the first year. It doesn't yet have all the normal complement of antibodies to counteract common germs. So, keeping the area flexible and free of dirt will help prevent those germs from getting inside.

It's rarely necessary to swab the area with alcohol. In fact, a contemporary study suggests that this is mildly counterproductive. While not actively harmful, the cord will likely drop off a couple of days sooner if left alone.

But, babies are babies and the area can attract dirt, food and a host of other things. Again, not to worry! A little gentle wipe with a soft, wet cloth will do the trick. Sterile water is often all that's required.

When a little more thorough cleansing power is needed, mild and well-diluted antibacterial soap with a soft cotton cloth can do a perfect job. Avoid ordinary washcloths if they become stiff and a little harsh after they're no longer brand new.

If moisture gets trapped where it won't dry out within a few minutes the lowest setting of the hair dryer can help. Make sure the air doesn't get hot. A baby's skin is very sensitive.

Avoid covering the stump with the diaper. Also, keep it folded down far enough so that the top ridge doesn't push or bend the cord as the baby is moved around or picked up. Be sure to change soiled diapers right away to keep the area dry and free from possible infectious agents.

A sponge bath is best during this period. In theory it's possible to use a tub filled below the navel. But babies will get tilted, slip and other movements will likely occur that splash the area with soapy water. A little drip from a sponge bath isn't a disaster, but keeping water to a minimum is best.

Never succumb to the temptation to give the stump any assistance in falling off. It will do so naturally at the right time all on its own. Tugging can tear the skin and produce pain and possible infection.