profile picture of Lisa Milbrand
Lisa Milbrand
Contributing Writer

Umbilical Cord Care 101

The umbilical cord stump will fall off on its own—but knowing how to care for it until it does is key.

Once baby emerges from mom’s womb and into the world, there’s no need for the umbilical cord anymore—but it takes a little bit of time before baby’s body sheds the umbilical cord stump and fully heals. So when does the umbilical cord fall off, and how should you go about cleaning and caring for the umbilical cord stump in the meantime? Read on to learn everything you need to know about baby umbilical cord care.

In this article:
What is the umbilical cord?
Umbilical cord care
When does umbilical cord fall off?
Infected umbilical cord

What Is the Umbilical Cord?

The umbilical cord is baby’s lifeline while she’s in utero: It connects baby to the placenta, transferring nutrients and oxygen from your body to hers and removing waste from her body to yours. When baby is born the umbilical cord will be cut, since she no longer needs that connection to you—though the stump of the umbilical cord will stay with her until a few weeks after birth.

What happens to the umbilical cord after birth
After baby’s born, your body will expel the umbilical cord along with the placenta, and your doctor or midwife will cut the connection close to baby’s belly button. That umbilical cord stump will cover baby’s navel until it heals and then falls off on its own. But until it does, it’s important to know the general guidelines when it comes to umbilical cord care.

Umbilical Cord Care

Umbilical cord care protocols have changed quite a lot since you were a baby—so your mom’s advice may not be the best way to go. “There was a time when parents were being told to apply alcohol to the stump to help it dry out and fall off faster,” says Carrie Brown, MD, a pediatrician at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. “But research has since shown that using alcohol is not necessarily helpful.” While applying alcohol certainly isn’t harmful, studies prove that it doesn’t, in fact, speed up the healing process.

Instead, the most effective, science-backed approach to caring for the umbilical cord is simply to not mess with it. “Generally, it’s best to leave the umbilical cord open to the air as much as possible,” says Karen Fratantoni, MD, MPH, medical director of the Complex Care Program at Children's National Health System in Washington, DC. “The umbilical cord will heal faster if it’s kept dry.” To help promote healing, keep these top umbilical cord care tips in mind:

Give baby sponge baths. Sponge baths are a good option, since you don’t want to submerge baby in the bathtub until the umbilical cord stump has fallen off. Just use water or water and a mild soap.

Air it out. Try not to cover the stump with baby’s diaper (plenty of newborn diapers come with a U-notch to ensure baby’s umbilical cord isn’t covered up), and use comfortably fitting—not tight—onesies, or just dress baby in diapers and T-shirts. Don’t clean the stump, unless it comes in contact with stool or other potential infectants. In that case, clean it with water and a mild soap, and dry it thoroughly.

Leave it alone. Avoid the urge to pull off the stump—it’ll come off on its own naturally.

When Does Umbilical Cord Fall Off?

Many parents know you shouldn’t fuss with baby’s umbilical cord stump but are anxious to know when it’ll fall off on its own. The good news is you won’t have to wait long: The umbilical cord typically falls off 7 to 10 days after baby’s birth, Brown says.

What to do when umbilical cord falls off

When the umbilical cord stump falls off, there’s no need to panic. “There may be a small amount of blood when the stump falls off, but this is normal and shouldn’t last for more than a minute or two,” Brown says. A small scab will form where the umbilical cord was attached. Keep the area clean with a wet cotton swab, then dry thoroughly.

Infected Umbilical Cord

A little bit of bleeding from the umbilical cord or the area around it when the stump falls off isn’t cause for concern—but if there’s significant or continued bleeding, that could be a sign of an infection. Signs of an infected umbilical cord include:

  • Red or swollen skin around the umbilical cord
  • Significant bleeding
  • Liquid seeping from the site after the stump has fallen off
  • White or yellow pus draining from the umbilical cord site
  • The umbilical cord hasn’t fallen off three weeks after birth
  • Fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • A foul smell around the umbilical cord area

If you see any of these symptoms, call your pediatrician to discuss treatment. You may need to use an antibiotic ointment, or if the infection is severe, otherwise known as omphalitis, hospitalization may be necessary to stop the spread of the umbilical cord infection. While omphalitis is a serious complication that requires immediate care, it’s relatively rare: Only 1 in 200 newborns will contract this severe infection.

Published August 2017