The first time I saw a newborn’s belly button, I admit I was a little put-off. The umbilical stump had yet to fall off, and I was a touch horrified by the shriveled, black tissue on the baby’s stomach. His mother reassured me it would fall off soon, and that she cared for it every day by rubbing it with alcohol and keeping it covered. This was just months after I met another mother who staunchly proclaimed she did nothing to care for the stump because it would take care of itself. What was the right answer? Did an umbilical stump really need care, or was it one of those things that would do what it needed all on its own?

After a baby is born, a portion of the umbilical cord will be left attached to help reduce the risk of infection. Studies have indicated this is one of the most concerning elements of newborn care for most first time parents. They worry about the stump getting infected or not falling off when it is supposed to. For most babies, the stump will completely dry up, blacken, and fall off with 5 to 15 days after birth. It is important that the cord is properly cared for during this time in order to prevent infection caused by germs and bacteria entering the baby’s body through the cord.

When it comes to umbilical stump care, there are many theories as to the appropriate methodology. Some mothers insist on swabbing the cord periodically throughout the day with rubbing alcohol or applying antiseptics at every diaper change. Others are more concerned about keeping the area dry and will apply powders and sprays in an effort to keep the stump from getting moist. Studies have indicated that these efforts have little to no effect on the reduction of infection in newborns. While there was some reduction in colonization of bacteria around the umbilical stumps of those babies who were treated with antiseptics around the stump, the difference was slight and considered only as a “trend” rather than a true link. Use of antiseptics was linked with a longer amount of time before the stump fell off. Researchers indicate the most important element of taking care of a newborn’s umbilical stump is caring for it with clean hands. Everyone who comes in contact with the baby should have freshly washed hands. This will reduce the number of germs and bacteria that are introduced onto the baby.

Source: Zupan, Jelka, et al. Topical umbilical cord care at birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2004, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD001057. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001057.pub2

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