Parents-to-be have a lot to think about. There are decisions to be made about the baby’s name, nursery color scheme, birthing plan, whether or not to breastfeed — the list is endless. Now, in recent years, parents have something else to consider: whether or not to collect and bank their child’s umbilical cord blood.
For many reasons, this is not an easy or straightforward decision, as there are different types of banking that come at a wide range of costs. We spoke to doctors about what parents need to know about umbilical cord blood banking before making a decision.
What is umbilical cord blood?
Umbilical cord blood is exactly what it sounds like: the blood contained in the umbilical cord and placenta after a baby is born and the cord is cut. As a quick health-class refresher, the umbilical cord connects the fetus to the placenta, which supplies the fetus with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive and develop, in a pregnant person’s uterus.
But what makes umbilical cord blood so special? Two words: stem cells. As you’re probably aware, stem cells are currently being used in various types of treatment and research and are valued for their ability to grow into specific types of cells in a person’s body, the March of Dimes explains. Though we’re only at the very beginning of understanding what we can do with stem cells, there are a few conditions that can currently be treated using the stem cells found in umbilical cord blood, including leukemia, primary immune deficiency, hemoglobinopathy or a metabolic disorder, Dr. Trung Tristan Truong, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells SheKnows.
Why bank umbilical cord blood?
As we’ve established, umbilical cord blood contains stem cells, which can be used to treat a variety of life-threatening conditions. In theory, each time a new baby is born, there’s the opportunity to collect and store something that has the potential to save lives. On top of that, collecting umbilical cord blood is relatively safe and easy with no risks to the mother or baby, according to the March of Dimes.
So if this is the case, why isn’t the umbilical cord blood always collected and stored? Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. To start with, there are two types of umbilical cord blood banks: public and private.
When parents donate cord blood to a private bank, it goes to a general bank to be used to research or to treat other people and is done for free. Once the donation is made, the donor is no longer entitled to the cord blood. They are, of course, still eligible to use others’ cord blood if they need it later in life, but think of using public banks as true donations — not deposits. The American Academy of Pediatrics prefers that parents use public cord banks. If parents are interested in donating to a public bank, they can contact the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match for more information.
This bring us to private cord blood banks, which involves paying a for-profit company to store your baby’s cord blood in case it is useful for them or someone else in the family in the future. According to Truong, private cord blood banks are expensive, ranging in cost from $1,350 to $2,350 for storage and $100 to $175 for the annual maintenance fee.
In addition, private cord blood banks are less regulated and may potentially have lower-quality stored cord blood units with less viability compared with public cord blood banks, Truong notes.
The point of paying for private banking is to store cord blood for potential self-use, which Truong says is rarely necessary, as it tends to be underutilized. In fact, public bank blood tends to be used more often than private cord blood, he adds.
“With private cord blood banking, an infant is less likely to need the cord blood for personal use later on or for other family members — like a sibling — unless there is a known genetic disorder in the family,” Truong explains. “However, an infant’s cord blood saved in a private blood bank may not be used to treat leukemia if that child develops leukemia later on as his/her cord blood may already contain malignant cells… so that child would need a cord blood transplant from another child.”
According to Dr. Leah Houston, a board-certified emergency physician, stem-cell transplants with cord blood have been used to cure both children and adults with leukemia since the early 1990s. And even though at this point it is not used for autologous transplants — meaning using a person’s own cord blood for their stem-cell transplant — that doesn’t necessarily mean that will always be the case.
“The near future, however, has potential for stem cells to be used for a variety of other issues — organ transplant in general is a possibility, so why not store these precious cells just in case?” Houston says.
To bank or not to bank?
As far as advice for parents considering banking their child’s cord blood, Houston says it’s important to do your research.
“Ask about what they do with your tissue if you stop paying, where they store it, what kind of backup generator system they have should there be a natural disaster, etc.,” she explains. “Choose the decision that is best for your principles, look at all the advancements that have been made since you were young and your parents were young, and try and think like your future child and know what they would want.”
If parents decide they do want to bank their child’s cord blood, the March of Dimes recommends talking to your health care provider around the 28 to 34-week mark to find out about different options and whether the hospital permits patients to donate to public banks.
One thing to keep in mind when making this decision is that the private banks are companies that need to make money in order to survive. Though the marketing varies between companies, be mindful of private banks that try to take advantage of anxious parents-to-be, making it seem like anyone who doesn’t put their baby’s cord blood in a private bank is in some way not being a good parent or harming their child’s future health.
At the same time, given that the greatest risk of private banking is financial, if parents have the monetary resources to store their child’s cord blood in case it’s useful for them in the future, there’s no reason not to. For everyone else, public banking is always a good, altruistic option. Either way, it’s important to talk about cord blood banking so more people are aware of the potential lifesaving benefits.