When the umbilical cord is cut, it leaves a stump, which then dries, heals, and within 1 to 3 weeks falls off. During the time the cord is healing it should be kept as clean and as dry as possible. In order to keep the cord dry, sponge bathe your baby rather than submersing him in a tub of water. If the cord should become wet or soggy it can be gently dried with a hair dryer set on warm. Utmost care must be taken not to burn the baby’s skin with air that is too hot.
Apply rubbing alcohol to the baby’s cord every time you change the baby’s diaper. This is done by gently holding the end of the stump and pulling up just slightly in order to clean the base of the cord with the alcohol. You can use a cotton ball, Q-tip, or a packaged alcohol swab. It is important to squeeze the alcohol around the stump of the cord and clean off any drainage that may be present. Rubbing alcohol is easily absorbed through the baby’s skin, so do not use too much. If you accidentally spill the rubbing alcohol on your baby, immediately remove all clothing and wash it off.
It is also advisable to keep the diaper turned down off of the cord. Do not leave the area wet with alcohol as it can be irritating. Blot the alcohol with an clean absorbent pad or gauze then fan the area slightly with your hand to dry it thoroughly.
Continue to apply the alcohol for a few days after the cord falls off to ensure cleanliness until the area is completely healed. This is particularly important if the cord is an “innie” because you cannot see the remainder of the stump and air cannot circulate around it.
Observe the umbilical cord for infection. This does not occur frequently, but can spread quickly if infection does occur. Signs of infection would be:
- foul-smelling, yellow drainage from the cord
- redness and tenderness of the skin surrounding the cord
Another infrequent problem is active bleeding. This usually occurs when the cord is pulled off prematurely. Allow the cord to fall off naturally, even if it is only hanging on by a thread. Active bleeding is defined as every time you wipe away a drop of blood, another drop appears. If the cord does actively bleed, call your baby’s doctor immediately.
Occasionally instead of completely drying, the cord will form a granuloma, which is pink scar tissue. This granuloma drains a light-yellowish fluid. This condition will usually go away in about a week with frequent application of rubbing alcohol, but if not, your pediatrician may need to cauterize the granulation tissue.
Your baby’s umbilical cord stump should dry up and fall off by 8 weeks of age. If your baby’s stump remains beyond that time, it may suggest an anatomical abnormality or immunological problem. See the primary care practitioner if the cord has not dried up and fallen off by the time the baby is 2 months old.
by Armen E. Martirosyan, M.D.