Parents of newborns have been trying to stump me with their questions about how best to care for their baby’s belly button or umbilical cord stump. Let me try to clamp off anyone’s concern and provide some information on this topic.
The quickest way to have the cord stump fall off, leaving a nice new belly button, is to have it dry out. The best way to speed up the drying process is to sponge bathe your baby rather than submerge the baby in a tub of water. Then you can dry the cord stump with a clean absorbent cloth or fan it with a piece of paper. Swabbing the cord stump with alcohol may actually irritate the skin and slow down healing and drying. You can also keep the diaper folded below the cord stump to keep urine from soaking into the area.
When the stump looks ready to falls off, you should let it do so on its own and not pull it off. Once it falls off, you can then bathe your baby in a baby tub or sink.
While parents may want to put antibacterial agents on or around the cord, there is no clear benefit of doing this. Reducing the friendly bacteria that live on the skin around the cord through use of such agents may lead to less friendly bacterial strains that can infect the cord.
It may take a few weeks for the cord stump to fall off. When it does, there may be a few drops of blood, which is normal. But if the cord does actively bleed, then further medical attention is needed.
What are other reasons to be concerned about your baby’s umbilical cord? If the cord area starts to turn red at the base, if your baby cries when you touch the cord or skin next to it, or if there is a foul-smelling yellowish discharge from the cord stump or belly button, these could be signs of infection. Medical attention is warranted in this case, since infection of this area– or what we call omphalitis – is a medical emergency.
If the cord has not fallen off in 4-6 weeks, please let your child’s health care professional know. In this instance, they may use a chemical called silver nitrate to speed the drying process along. They can also make sure there is no problem with your baby’s immune system that could prevent the cord stump from drying up and falling off.
Hopefully tips like this will put you in the “inny” crowd so you are not left “outie” in the cold when it comes to speeding up the drying and falling off of your baby’s umbilical cord stump.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and MyNBC 5, or visit the “First with Kids” video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.