Babies are born with belly buttons — sort of.
Babies are actually born with an umbilical cord that attaches them to the placenta. In the womb, this cord delivers oxygen and nutrients to the baby through a spot on their tummy. The umbilical cord also carries waste away from the baby.
Once a baby is born, they can breathe, eat, and get rid of waste on their own, so the umbilical cord is cut off.
Left behind are a couple of inches of umbilical cord called the stump, which will slowly dry and fall off like a scab. Below that scab is what will become your baby’s own belly button.
How is the umbilical cord removed?
In order to cut the umbilical cord, doctors clamp it in two places and cut between the two clamps. This prevents too much bleeding.
Umbilical cords don’t have any nerves, so it doesn’t hurt when the umbilical cord is clamped off, the same way a haircut or clipping your nails doesn’t hurt.
However, the umbilical cord stump is still attached to living tissue on your baby’s abdomen, so you want to be very careful with the stump and surrounding area.
The best way to care for an umbilical cord stump is to keep it clean and dry until it falls off on its own.
To keep it clean, you don’t need to wash it regularly. Instead, you should avoid getting it dirty.
Keeping the stump dry is the best way to promote healthy healing and a natural break off.
Here are some tips for newborn belly button care:
- If the cord gets wet, gently pat it dry with a clean baby washcloth. You can also try using a Q-tip, but avoid being too aggressive or rubbing the stump off. You don’t want the stump to be pulled off before it’s ready.
- Fold down the top of your baby’s diaper to keep it away from the stump. Some newborn diapers come with a little scoop in the design to prevent the diaper from rubbing against the stump.
- Use clean cotton clothing on your newborn and their healing belly button. It’s ok to pull light clothing over the stump, but avoid anything too tight, or fabrics that don’t breathe well.
Sponge baths are best as you wait for the umbilical cord stump to fall off on its own, because you can easily avoid washing the area around the stump.
Ask your doctor how frequently you should wash your baby. Their skin is sensitive and doesn’t need to be cleaned every day.
To bathe a baby with their stump still attached:
- Lay a clean, dry bath towel on the floor in a warm part of your home.
- Lay your naked baby on the towel.
- Wet a clean baby washcloth thoroughly and ring it out so that it’s not sopping wet.
- Wipe your baby’s skin in gentle strokes, avoiding the belly button.
- Focus on the neck folds and armpits, where milk or formula often collects.
- Let your baby’s skin air dry as long as possible, then pat dry.
- Dress your baby in clean cotton clothing that’s neither too tight nor too loose.
The umbilical cord stump usually falls off in one to three weeks after birth. Talk to your doctor if the cord stump has not fallen off within three weeks, as this could be a sign of an underlying problem.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for any sign of infection, an uncommon occurrence. If you spot pus, bleeding, swelling, or discoloration, call your doctor right away.
When the belly button has totally healed, the stump will easily fall off on its own. Some parents save the stump as a nostalgic reminder of the baby’s connection to mom.
After the stump falls off, it won’t take long for the belly button to look like a belly button. There may be some blood or scabbing still, since the cord is like a scab.
Never pick at your newborn’s belly button or cord stump as this could introduce infection or irritate the area. You’ll be able to see that cute tummy soon enough.
Once the stump falls off, you can give your baby a proper bath. You don’t have to clean the belly button any more or less than the rest of baby’s body.
You can use the corner of a washcloth to clean in the belly button, but you don’t need to use soap or to scrub too hard.
If the belly button still looks like an open wound after the cord falls off, avoid rubbing it until it heals completely.
Some babies have belly buttons that pop out because that’s how the skin tissue healed. This is often called an “outie” belly button, versus an “innie” that looks like a deep dimple.
Outie belly buttons may or may not be permanent, but there is nothing you can do to prevent them or change them.
Occasionally, an outie belly button is the sign of an umbilical hernia. This happens when intestines and fat push through stomach muscles under the belly button.
Only a doctor can diagnose a real hernia. Umbilical hernias usually aren’t painful or problematic, and they often self-correct in a few years.
Another potential complication with the belly button before the cord stump falls off is omphalitis. This is a rare but life-threatening infection and needs emergency care. Be watchful for signs of infection, such as:
- redness or discoloration
- persistent bleeding
- bad smell
- tenderness on the stump or belly button
An umbilical granuloma may appear a few weeks after the cord stump falls off. This is a painless red lump of tissue. Your doctor will decide if and how to treat it.
Baby belly buttons are a work in progress following the umbilical cord stump and a few weeks of TLC.
Thankfully, there’s low risk of anything going wrong with your newborn’s belly button. Keep it clean and dry, and let nature take its course.