Can Umbilical Cord Complications Result in an Injury to the Infant?

A fetus’s umbilical cord is a flexible tube that provides essential nutrients and support to a developing fetus. In fact, the umbilical cord provides support to a baby until the moment of delivery when the doctor severs the cord from the body. Issues with this vital companion during pregnancy can cause issues in the developing fetus or baby.

Most women experience healthy pregnancies and relatively uncomplicated deliveries. However, issues with the umbilical cord can occur, and cord prolapse occurs in an estimated one in 300 births. Knowing the risk factors of umbilical cord complications can help each mother better prepare for labor and delivery and serve as her own advocate during the pregnancy and delivery of a child.

What Does an Umbilical Cord Do?

The umbilical cord plays the important role of nourishing the baby during pregnancy. It connects the baby to the placenta and carries oxygen, blood, and other nutrients to the fetus, all of which are essential for healthy development. In addition, it removes the baby’s waste products, so the mother can excrete them. On average, this structure is around 2 feet long and has one vein and two arteries. It is so vital that it’s often referred to as the baby’s lifeline during pregnancy.

Umbilical cord complications are some of the most common to occur during pregnancy and childbirth. Several types of umbilical cord issues exist:

  • Abnormal cord length, when the cord is too short or too long. A cord that is too long is a risk factor for umbilical cord prolapse, while a short cord can prevent essential nutrients from reaching the baby.
  • Only one umbilical artery. This could affect the amount and quality of oxygenated blood that reaches the baby, which can have significant consequences that accrue throughout the course of the pregnancy.
  • Umbilical cord prolapse, which occurs when the cord enters the cervix ahead of the baby. This can lead to decreased fetal oxygen and possible brain damage, even stillbirth.
  • Nuchal cord, or the umbilical cord wrapping around the baby’s neck.
  • Vasa previa, which occurs when the umbilical cord blood vessels cross under the baby. When the cervix dilates, this can cause tearing.
  • Cord cysts, or growths that occur on the umbilical cord itself.
  • Umbilical cord hematoma, or clot, which can obstruct blood flow.
  • A cord stricture can lead to the constriction of blood flow to the baby.
  • A teratoma, or a collection of various cells, can grow on the umbilical cord and cause complications.
Diagnosing an Umbilical Cord Complication

In some cases, a provider may diagnose an umbilical cord complication during routine prenatal care. These complications may be apparent through use of an ultrasound, or a fetal heartbeat may encourage a health care provider to run more tests to pinpoint the issue.

In other cases, an umbilical cord complication may not present until labor and delivery. This is especially true of an umbilical cord prolapse, which generally does not occur until the labor starts. In fact, premature rupture of the membranes (PROM) is the leading cause of umbilical cord prolapse.

Mothers can take steps to help prevent umbilical cord complications – for example, attending all recommended prenatal appointments and completing all required testing is a good way to maximize the chances of a healthy pregnancy. Additionally, reporting to labor and delivery as soon as the water breaks can help by ensuring constant monitoring of the fetus. In general, however, it is the role of the provider to identify the presence of an umbilical cord complication and intervene as soon as possible. Timely identification of an umbilical cord complication can be a matter of life or death for a fetus.