The cutting of your baby’s umbilical cord is a joyous moment. It marks the symbolic break from your baby’s home inside your belly into their extrauterine (or out of womb) life.
But did you know that your baby’s umbilical cord – their lifeline for nine months in your belly – could also be a life-saving gift to someone else? Before the doctor hands you or your partner the clamps, you may want to consider keeping the umbilical cord and cord blood.
“Cord blood is the blood left in the umbilical cord after birth,” said Shannon Heronema-Garcia, director of women and infant services at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, AZ. “In the past, the umbilical cord and the cord blood were thrown away after childbirth, but we now know that this blood is rich with stem cells that have a wide variety of lifesaving medical purposes.”
According to the Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation, the stem cells in cord blood differ from others because they are younger and have had less exposure to illness or environmental factors. There are also about 10 times as many stem cells in cord blood as there are in bone marrow.
“Since first used in 1988, umbilical cord blood stem cells have been used to treat tens of thousands of patients, offering the potential for curing a large number of people,” said Jordan Perlow, MD, a maternal and fetal medicine specialist with Banner – University Medicine Women’s Institute in Phoenix.
If you’re thinking about storing cord blood, Heronema-Garcia and Dr. Perlow shared five important things to know about cord blood and cord blood banking.
Cord blood treats more than 80 diseases
The blood that can be collected from the umbilical cord has many different uses.
“It’s an exceptionally rich source of hematopoietic stem cells, which are the building blocks of the blood and immune systems of the body,” Dr. Perlow said. “Cord blood is often used today as a substitute for bone marrow and peripheral blood in stem cell transplants to treat both malignant and non-malignant diseases.”
Currently, cord blood stem cells have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the treatment of more than 80 diseases, including sickle cell and other inherited anemias, metabolic disorders, leukemia, lymphoma, thalassemia and immune disorders. Each year, the number of cord blood stem cell transplants has risen as its effectiveness in treatments continues to be proven.
“Beyond these approved uses of the stem cells in cord blood, there is a potential for stem cells to help many other disorders in the future,” Dr. Perlow said. “These include autism, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases, cerebral palsy and degenerative joint diseases.”
Cord blood banking isn’t painful – for parent or baby
There’s no pain or risk to you or the baby during the collection process because cord blood is taken after the cord has been clamped and cut. This can be done for both vaginal and cesarean deliveries.
“The collection of the cord blood requires a specific kit that must be in the room at delivery,” Heronema-Garcia said. “Cord blood is then frozen and can be stored indefinitely.”
Cord blood collection can also be done after a delayed cord clamping, which is a procedure where the cutting of the cord is delayed 30 seconds or a minute to allow blood in the cord to return to your baby prior to it being clamped and cut.
“Delayed cord clamping is beneficial for both premature and term babies,” Dr. Perlow noted.
You can store cord blood privately or donate cord blood
When it comes to your cord blood, you can choose from three options: dispose as medical waste, store at a private (commercial) cord bank or public cord blood bank.
“If you decide to private or public bank, this decision really needs to be made ahead of time as a kit must be available at the time of delivery,” Heronema-Garcia said. “The kits come directly from the private or public bank.”
Private banking: This means that once the cord blood is collected, it will be saved for use for the baby and family members only. Private banking typically is pretty costly as it requires both an initial fee and storage fees.
Private cord blood banking isn’t recommended unless there is a specific or potential use planned due to family history or a medical condition (malignant or genetic) potentially treatable with cord blood stem cells. “Yet, many families have chosen this option for the potential benefits in the future given ongoing clinical research and studies looking not only at the diseases currently treated but also the potential use of cord blood stem cells and tissues in the field of regenerative medicine,” Dr. Perlow said.
Public banking: Just like a blood bank, your baby’s stored cord blood is available to those who are biologic matches. However, it will not be available for use by your family. Storing cord blood in a public bank is free and is used far more often in medical procedures and for research purposes. This may also include patients receiving stem cells in clinical trials.
“Public banking or cord blood donation is the recommended method of getting umbilical cord blood for use in transplantation, immune therapies or other pertinent medical procedures. It is available at some but not all hospital delivery sites,” Dr. Perlow said.
Wherever you choose to store, make sure it is accredited through the American Association for the Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies.
Your stored cord blood may not help your child but could help others
Many people choose private family banking, but the chances of privately-banked cord blood being used for your child is extremely low. Stem cells from a child’s own cord blood often can’t be used to treat a genetic-related disease because these cells may have led to the disease in the first place. One study said the chance that a child will be able to use their own cord blood over their lifetime is from 1 in 400 to 1 in 200,000.
However, public banking can help others with life-threatening diseases.
“Making this lifesaving resource publicly available via banking holds the promise of helping others with life-threatening diseases, particularly ethnic and racial minorities where the potential for finding a match is low,” Dr. Perlow said. “For example, sickle cell anemia, an inherited blood disorder most common among Blacks and African Americans, can now benefit from cord blood transplants.”
Don’t make cord blood storage a last-minute decision
If you decide you want to bank your baby’s cord blood, you should coordinate with the bank before your baby is born so nothing is left to chance. The American Academy of Pediatrics said it should be arranged by the 34th week of pregnancy.
Check to see if your hospital or birthing center already works with one. If your hospital doesn’t work with a bank or you want to use a private bank, you’ll need to choose one yourself.
If you are considering cord blood banking and want to learn more about your options, talk to your health care provider.