Cutting the umbilical cord after delivery is both a literal and symbolic gesture, representing a child’s ability to breathe and exist on their own without being tethered to their mother. While the cut typically happens almost immediately after birth, U.S. obstetricians are now recommending to wait at least 30 to 60 seconds.
This makes sense when you think about it. During the gestation process, the fetus breathes via the placenta, taking in oxygen-rich fluid. Upon delivery, the baby’s lungs make the switch from processing liquid to inhaling air. Giving the child an extra minute to make the adjustment ensures that she doesn’t miss any extra oxygen to supplement early breaths.
Prior to the 1960s, it was common for doctors to wait at least five minutes before cutting the umbilical cord, although it’s unclear why this was the standard.
New research has shown that premature babies in particular benefit from prolonged access to umbilical cord blood, which translates to a lower risk of transfusions, anemia and bleeding in the brain. But full-term babies can also benefit, lowering the risk of an iron deficiency that can delay cognitive development. In fact, one study found that waiting three minutes before cutting the cord resulted in slightly better early brain development.
Regardless of the time between delivery and cord cutting, it shouldn’t interfere with the mother holding her baby. “While the baby’s nice and warm on your skin, we’ll take our time and then clamp,” the National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Tonse Raju told the Associated Press.
Of course, doctors will not put off cutting the cord if the baby is having problems breathing or needs emergency care. Also, parents who wish to save and store their child’s cord blood for potential future medical use should know that delayed cutting means less blood for banking. Yet again, this highlights the need for patients and parents to be well-informed about the possible risks and benefits of both procedures so they can make the most effective decisions.