What Is the Best Practice For Baby Umbilical Cord Care?

Question: What Is the Best Practice For Baby Umbilical Cord Care?

I am confused about how best to care for the baby umbilical cord. My doctor told me to leave it heal naturally, but I've heard several people say that I should be swabbing it with alcohol to keep it clean and allow it to fall off faster. What should I do?

Answer:

The practice of swabbing the umbilical cord stump with alcohol has been going on for ages, so it's no wonder that you have friends and family that think you should be doing it.

Often suggested by doctors, it's quite a common method of treating the cord.

Research Studies About Caring for the Umbilical Cord

To cut to the heart of it all, swabbing the stump with alcohol likely won't hurt any, but it may not necessarily help either. It's a harmless practice, but it might not do what people think it does - namely prevent infection better and cause the stump to fall of more quickly.

In a 1998 study, researchers investigated the differences in care between alcohol and natural drying methods and found that neither group developed an infection. Further, babies who were treated with the leave-it-the-heck-alone method had cords that fell off in 8 days, whereas the babies in the alcohol group fell off at day 10. For reference, you can generally expect the cord to fall off by 2 to 4 weeks of age.

Natural Drying Still Requires Attention

If you do opt to let the umbilical cord fall off naturally, understand that this doesn't mean you shouldn't clean the area if it becomes soiled.

If that occurs, cleanse the area gently with soap and water. Blot it with a dry gauze pad and allow it to air dry.

The bottom line is that you should have a chat with your pediatrician about her views on the treatment methods and share with her any concerns you have. If the "goopy" nature of the belly button bothers you, she may tell you to go ahead and carefully swab the base of the stump twice a day.

However, if you are comfortable letting it dry naturally, then do so.

When to Call the Pediatrician

If you have concerns about the umbilical cord specifically, be sure to call your pediatrician if:

  • The belly button and surrounding area become red, swollen, or inflamed.
  • You see puss oozing from the base of the stump.
  • The area becomes particularly foul smelling.
  • Your baby develops a fever.
  • The stump is freshly bleeding.
  • Your baby seems to be in pain from the cord.

Sources

Dore S, Buchan D, Coulas S, Hamber L, Stewart M, Cowan D, Jamieson L. Alcohol Versus Natural Drying for Newborn Cord Care. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 1998 Nov-Dec;27(6):621-7.

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