baby with umbilical cord clamped and cleaned
Louise Broadbridge
Louise Broadbridge

How to care for your baby's umbilical cord

When your baby is first born, they will still have the stump of their umbilical cord attached. This can look a little unnerving and many new parents can feel a little apprehensive, especially when changing their newborn’s nappy or giving them a wash.

But don’t worry, the umbilical cord will dry out naturally and fall off of its own accord, leaving your little one with a much cuter belly button in its place.

What exactly is the umbilical cord?

When your baby is in the womb, they are connected to the placenta by the umbilical cord. Made up of three blood vessels, this cord is your baby’s lifeline, carrying food and oxygen from the placenta through the vein and taking waste away through the two arteries.

Although it is incredibly important throughout your pregnancy, once your baby is born the umbilical cord is no longer needed. The midwife who delivers your baby will clamp the cord and it will cut close to the navel. Your birth partner may be able to cut the cord if you wish.

This will not hurt the baby as the cord does not contain any nerves. Your baby will then be left with a sterile plastic clamp, which will remain on the cord until it dries out.

How do I care for the umbilical cord?

One of the best ways to care for the cord is to leave it alone. It needs time to dry out so it can fall off naturally – usually around five to 15 days after the birth. 

Resist the temptation to fiddle with it or do anything to encourage it to fall off. The only thing you need to do is to keep an eye on it for any signs of infection.

If it becomes dirty, use cool boiled water to gently clean the area, otherwise try to touch it as little as possible. You may find it is easier to give your baby sponge baths – where you use a wet cloth to gently clean your baby – rather than putting them into a bathtub or baby bath. This is because you want to try to keep the umbilical cord as dry as possible.

What will happen to the umbilical cord?

The umbilical cord will gradually change in appearance and colour and after five days, it will have turned from yellow to a very dark brown, almost black. It will also dry out and become hard.

Eventually, it will fall off by itself. This can be a little startling, especially if you are a first time parent.

Once it has come off, you can just dispose of it unless you decide you want to keep it as a memento. Your baby’s belly button will look quite raw and sore once the stump has fallen out.

Keep this area clean – just use plain water – and it should heal within two weeks. Speak to your midwife or health visitor if you are concerned the area isn’t healing.

Are there any problems I need to look out for?

Contact your midwife, GP or health visitor if you notice any bleeding or discharge coming from the umbilical cord stump. This can be a sign that it has become infected.

Avoid touching the stump more than you need to but check it every time you change your baby’s nappy. Look out for any signs of infection at the base of the stump like inflamed skin, reddening, yellow discharge or an unpleasant smell.

If there is an infection, your baby may need antibiotics so seek medical advice. An umbilical cord infection can interfere with your baby’s feeding.

If your baby ever seems lethargic, floppy or has a temperature of  38°C or more, get medical attention straight away as these are signs they may have a serious infection which needs immediate treatment.

What happens if the cord falls off too soon?

It is important not to pull or cut the umbilical cord off as if it comes off before it is ready, it can bleed. If this happens and the stump continues to bleed, contact your midwife, health visitor or GP or call 111 if they are not available.

If the cord comes away before it is ready, it may take longer for your baby’s belly button to heal and they are at more risk of developing an infection.

Do I need to add anything to the cord stump?

Older family members or people with older children may ask if you have been given anything to add to the cord stump. In the past, people were advised to add powders to the stump or use rubbing alcohol to dry the area out. 

Advice on this has now changed and it is recommended that nothing is added to the stump and it is left to dry out by itself.

What if the stump doesn’t fall off?

If your baby’s umbilical cord stump is taking a long time to fall off, mention it to your midwife or health visitor who can check to see whether there is a problem. It can take longer to fall off some babies than others but it should come off by the time your baby is three weeks old. 

If your baby is more than three weeks old and the stump is showing no signs of coming away, this can be a sign that there is an underlying issue so talk to your midwife, GP or health visitor.

Sign up for a free online antenatal class