The umbilical cord is the connection between a mother and her baby in the womb that provides the baby with nutrients and removes waste products. Since the cord is not needed after birth, it is cut down to a short stump of tissue that dries up and falls off without the need for further medical intervention. While cord problems are relatively rare, issues occasionally arise. One of the most common complications is umbilical cord smells. Common causes of cord smells are infections, dirt, bacteria, and harmless odors associated with the cord drying up.
Some level of odor from a newborn's umbilical cord is common and should not be a cause for concern. Normal umbilical cord smells are mild and should not be noticeable unless the baby's caregiver is very close to the stump. To help prevent umbilical cord smells, it is important to keep the area dry and avoid letting the diaper rub it. The area should be allowed to air dry as much as possible and should not be exposed to lotions or soaps, though it can be rubbed with alcohol if needed. While some parents may be tempted to pull the dry stump off, this can cause bleeding and increase susceptibility to infection.
Umbilical cord smells caused by infection will be noticeable during diaper changes and may be accompanied by discharge or pus in the area. An infection can be caused by bacteria or dirt entering the cord stump. Bacteria could come from caregivers who do not wash their hands before cleaning the area or changing diapers, or from the diaper material diaper itself. Newborns may also have a fever due to the infection.
Common signs of an umbilical cord infection include swelling around the cord stump or significant redness in the area. While a little bleeding from the stump is normal, excessive bleeding may also be a sign of infection. White or yellow pus draining from the site is a clear indication that the cord stump is not healing correctly. The smell from the cord will be unpleasant to foul and may worsen over time.
Umbilical cord infections can be serious and require professional medical treatment as soon as possible. Treatment may include antibiotics or a simple cauterization procedure. Any concerns about umbilical cord smells should be discussed with the baby's pediatrician.