During pregnancy, the umbilical cord forms as a connection between mother and baby to supply the fetus with everything it needs to grow. Immediately after birth, the umbilical cord offers one more opportunity to give life.
Here we look at the physiology and function of the umbilical cord.
Umbilical Cord Physiology
At full term, an umbilical cord is about half a meter long, a length that allows the baby to move around safely. It is made up of two small arteries and one larger vein. The arteries carry blood from the fetus to the placenta, while the vein delivers blood from the placenta to the fetus.
At birth, the umbilical cord is cut and the leftover bit becomes the belly button.
The umbilical cord connects to the baby’s abdomen from the placenta, which in turn is connected to the mother’s uterus. The placenta is responsible for producing pregnancy hormones, as well as hosting important nutritional exchanges between the mother and baby’s blood supply.
Small blood vessels carry the fetal blood through the placenta, which is filled with maternal blood. Nutrients and oxygen are passed from the mother’s blood to the fetal blood and waste is passed back to the maternal blood – all without any mixing between the two blood supplies.
After birth, the placenta detaches from the uterus and is expelled.
After the baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut, there is blood leftover in the umbilical cord and placenta. The baby no longer needs this extra blood.
Cord blood contains all the normal elements of blood, but it is also rich in stem cells similar to those found in bone marrow. Cord blood stem cells can be used to treat over 80 different diseases, with many more in the research stages.
There is a small window of opportunity at birth to collect cord blood. Collected cord blood is cryogenically frozen and stored in a family cord blood bank. If an immediate family member is in need of stem cells for treatment, there is a good chance that stored cord blood could be a match.
Cord blood can also be donated to a public bank.