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All In The Timing: Why Delaying Cord Clamping Benefits Your Baby

By Kelly Winder

Umbilical cord blood is a baby’s lifeblood until birth. It contains many wonderfully precious cells, like stem cells and red blood cells—and recently, scientists have discovered that umbilical cord blood contains cancer-fighting T cells, as well.

Yet common practice is to cut this source of valuable cells off from the baby at the moment of birth, due to unsubstantiated claims that it can cause complications. Not only that, but new businesses have been set up for the purpose of storing this precious cord blood for you, in case it’s needed in the future. This all sounds great in theory, but why deprive a baby of those super cells at birth and hold them back on the very small chance that a problem will appear later in life? Could there be a link between not having those super cells at birth and those illnesses? Storing cord blood is extremely expensive, so it is worth finding out exactly what illnesses cord blood has been successful in helping, and how common those conditions really are.

According to Dr. Sarah Buckley, in her well-researched book Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering (2005):

  • The likelihood of low-risk children needing their own stored cells has been estimated to be 1 in 20,000.

  • Cord-blood donations are likely to be ineffective for the treatment of adults, because the number of stem cells is too small.

  • Cord blood may contain pre-leukemic changes, and may increase the risk of relapse.

  • Autologous cord blood is only suitable for children who develop solid tumors, lymphomas or auto-immune disorders.

  • All other uses of cord blood are speculative.

The practical use of cord blood is limited. Leukemia is the most common reason for cord-blood transplantation, but in the majority of those cases, the most appropriate source of stem cells is a family member or an anonymous stem-cell donor.

Nonetheless, the collection of cord blood can be very lucrative. Midwives are offered training in the practice; some decline, while others opt to do it. Collectors are well paid for the procedure. A midwife who formerly collected cord blood describes the process as “stealing babies’ blood.”

Timing of Cord Clamping

An increasing number of studies have been published with regard to the timing of cord clamping, including a 16-month study which was published by the University of California Davis in 2006. It was conducted at Hospital de Gineco Obstetrica in Mexico City, where more than 350 mother/baby pairs were part of the study. This study and several others have provided solid evidence of the benefits of delayed clamping. The main benefits being:

  • Increased levels of iron
  • Lower risk of anemia
  • Fewer transfusions
  • Fewer incidences of intraventricular hemorrhage

A two-minute delay in cord clamping increased the child’s iron reserve by 27mg to 47mg of iron, which is the equivalent of one to two months of an infant’s iron requirements. This could help prevent iron deficiency from developing before 6 months of age. A 2007 study from the University of Granada had similar findings, and in 2010, a third study (at the University of South Florida Health) showed that early clamping may interfere with the transfer of cord blood, nature’s original stem-cell transplant.

While delayed clamping is beneficial for babies across the board, the studies found that the impact of delayed clamping is particularly significant for infants who have low birth weights, are born to iron-deficient mothers, are premature, or who do not receive baby formula or iron-fortified milk. Given that Mother Nature provided breastmilk for babies and not formula, you would think she also supplied that valuable source of iron for a reason, too. (You may have noticed that formula companies promote iron deficiency rates to sell their products.)

The studies suggest that delayed clamping, for as little as two minutes, should be implemented as standard practice. However, this has yet to happen at many hospitals. Some couples choose to leave the cord unclamped until it has stopped pulsating, which could take only a few minutes, or up to 20. Either way, the baby is able to get his or her supply of placental blood.

Delayed cord clamping is usually not compatible with cord blood donation. Some cord blood collectors say that they need the cord cut so the blood can be used for storage or donation. So if you would like your baby to have its full supply of cord blood, you may need to reconsider your plans to donate or store cord blood.

The 2010 University of South Florida Health study includes the following comments on cord-blood collection: “There remains no consensus among scientists and clinicians on cord clamping and proper cord blood collection,” concluded co-author and obstetrician Dr. Stephen Klasko, senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the USF College of Medicine. “The most important thing is to avoid losing valuable stem cells during and just after delivery.” Prevention is clearly better than cure—babies are better off keeping what is rightfully theirs.