The umbilical cord is the baby’s lifeline for 9 months. Through the umbilical cord, oxygenated blood and nutrients are transported from the placenta to the growing baby. Oftentimes, this connection is quickly severed as soon as the baby is born, usually within a minute after birth. Increasing evidence suggests that this can have detrimental effects on the baby; clamping the cord within seconds of birth deprives the baby of vital blood from the placenta, which can lead to iron deficiency and anemia (a decrease in the oxygen-carrying red blood cells) later in life.
The new medical standard among some physicians, midwives and medical institutions is to leave the umbilical cord unclamped and uncut for at least 30 seconds. The cord gets severed when it stops pulsating naturally, which usually occurs 2 – 5 minutes after birth. Cord clamping and cutting should be delayed to maximize therapeutic potential.
We now know that stem cells have many therapeutic properties. A Cochrane review found that delaying the clamping of the umbilical cord for up to 120 seconds in premature infants can lead to an increased number of red blood cells, the need for fewer transfusions due to anemia or low blood pressure, and a decreased risk of brain bleeds. Anemia is associated with later brain development problems and cognitive deficits. It is estimated that approximately 10% of toddlers are iron-deficient.
A delay in cord clamping can make a difference in a child’s health because the delay allows blood to return from the umbilical cord back to the baby, which can help keep the blood pressure normal and the red blood cell level high. Indeed, this cord blood is very beneficial.
A researcher from the University of South Florida, Dr. Paul Sandberg, has referred to this blood as nature’s first stem cell transplant. Dr. Sandberg and his colleagues have concluded that delaying cord clamping could reduce the baby’s risk of illnesses, such as respiratory distress, chronic lung disease, brain hemorrhages, anemia, sepsis and eye disease. The risk of these problems – and thus the potential benefit of delaying cord clamping – is especially significant for premature babies and those born suffering from other complications.
Dr. Andrew Gallagher, a pediatrician who adopted delayed cord clamping in 2009, says that every healthy mother should have delayed clamping in her birth plan, and that mothers should have as natural a birth plan as possible. He states that an iron deficiency can cause serious problems. The deficiency affects the brain and learning capacity of toddlers and can cause them to have developmental delays. Dr. Gallagher estimates that around 30 to 50 % of hospitals now delay cord clamping.
Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), has stated that when a baby is born, about a third of the baby’s blood is still in his or her cord and placenta. She says that with no good evidence to support it, it is accepted practice to accelerate the arrival of the placenta with an injection and clamp the cord immediately, depriving the baby of this blood.
Influential organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) now urge delay in cord clamping, and research published by medical journals such as the British Medical Journal (BMJ) have helped prompt a move away from immediate clamping.
“Evolutionarily, there is clearly value for this,” Dr. Sanberg stated, explaining that all mammals, including most humans throughout history, allow the maternal blood to finish being transferred before severing the cord. The squatting birthing position, only recently out of vogue in the West, may have even facilitated this transfer by harnessing gravity.
“Only in the last half century or so has mankind started cutting the cord early,” Dr. Sanberg said.
In 2011, a Swedish study published in the BMJ found that infants who had had delayed cord-clamping at birth had larger than usual iron stores at four months and were less likely to be anemic.
Indeed, a delay in clamping and cutting a baby’s umbilical cord is a simple practice that can have significant benefits for the child.