Monday, January 31, 2011

The Umbilical Cord: Why do we clamp it?

Clamping the umbilical cord immediately at birth was something that I was taught to do as a routine part of 'delivery' management. The reason for clamping the cord so quickly, I was told, was to stop the baby getting unnecessary blood because the extra blood would be all the more for the baby to process and they would be at risk of becoming jaundiced, caused by the breakdown of all the fetal blood cells.  A nuchal cord (cord around the neck of the baby) was felt for and cut before the shoulders and rest of the baby was born.

Added to the problem of extra blood with an uncut cord, was the fact that the woman was routinely injected with a synthetic form of oxytocin to hasten third stage. The injection of the synthetic oxytocic in third stage made the uterus contract. Authorities believed that if the cord wasn't cut swiftly, the uterine contractions caused by the injection would cause an even greater surge of blood into the new baby, causing the baby to be overloaded with blood and at even more risk of jaundice. 

Once I started working with childbearing women in a one to one way in private practice, the need to clamp and cut the umbilical cord immediately at birth was challenged by the women I worked with. They wanted the cord to be left alone until it stopped pulsating. Some even wanted the placenta to be born before the cord was cut. A few wanted the placenta and cord to be left attached to the baby and allowed to drop off itself, a process called Lotus birth.

The literature was mixed in regards to the advisability of leaving the cord to pulsate or clamping immediately. The opposed camps had reasons such as jaundice, blood volume, postpartum haemorrhage rates to explain their particular views and reasons for their recommendations. The reasons for cutting the cord have been proven to be spurious.  There is however a lot of evidence for leaving the cord alone.  Women and midwives have been talking about and promoting leaving the cord alone as a best practice strategy for several decades now and the evidence for doing so is only getting stronger.  Have a look at the way the cord changes in the minutes after birth.  The evidence for leaving the cord intact is also clear in the case of nuchal cords. Leaving them alone, gently 'somersaulting' the baby to untangle the cord as the baby is born works perfectly and there is no risk of having the baby's oxygen supply prematurely interrupted.  As beautifully explained on the Midwife Thinking blog, the oxygen carrying capacity of an intact cord is the baby's first line of resuscitation after birth. Our medical colleagues have been slower to take up the idea of leaving the cord alone. However a 2011 report has confirmed that iron stores are improved when the cord is left to stop pulsating. A more recent review found that "newborns with later clamping [were heavier and] had higher hemoglobin levels 24 to 48 hours postpartum and were less likely to be iron-deficient three to six months after birth, compared with term babies who had early cord clamping".

Hope for a more balanced approach to the topic of cord clamping or leaving it alone is on the horizon as an obstetric doctor in the US has written about what he calls 'delayed cord clamping' and has produced the following videos for The Grand Rounds on this topic.

Delayed cord clamping Grand Rounds 1

Delayed cord clamping Grand Rounds 2

Delayed cord clamping Grand Rounds 3

Delayed cord clamping Grand Rounds 4 

For more information on the umbilical cord and placenta, go to Rachel Reed's Midwife Thinking blog.  There is a post on the placenta in birth films on this blog here.

Another aspect that hasn't really been explored in great detail as yet, is the perfusion of the newborn's brain at birth. My thinking is that leaving the cord alone allows the newborn's brain to be optimally perfused and ensures that the neuronal connections that proliferate in response to birth to wire in the best possible way, especially when the baby is skin to skin with her/his mother and exposed to the multisensory stimulation that occurs in a physiologically mediated birthing experience. The question to be asked is "do babies suffer subtle brain damage through premature clamping of the cord and less than optimal sensory experiences at birth?" I suspect they do.

Some women want the cord clamped and pulled to get the placenta out as quickly as possible, others see the placenta as the spiritual twin of the baby and want to keep the baby and placenta together.  There are many reasons for leaving the transition to extrauterine life and resuscitation system alone, what's your view?

I can see the day dawning when we look back and say "remember when we used to think that cutting the umbilical cord prematurely was a good thing to do" with incredulous amazement.

Postscript: There is a new article out this month (8th October 2014) in the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health on clamping the umbilical cord at birth. Called "Is it time to Rethink Cord Management when Resuscitation is needed" the article provides compelling evidence for leaving the cord intact and resuscitating a compromised infant by the mother's side.


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