Waiting 60 Seconds to Cut the Umbilical Cord Could Save Thousands of Premature Babies

A nurse feeds a newborn in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, in April. Mounting research says that waiting to cut the umbilical cord could save thousands of infant lives every year. SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Deciding when to cut a newborn's umbilical cord has been a question plaguing medical professionals and parents for years. New research indicates that delaying clamping for one minute can save thousands of babies born prematurely each year.

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At stake, when it comes to timing, has been determining at what point nutrients delivered from the cord, in a process known as placental transfusion, become harmful to the mother or baby. Some have thought that it could lead to internal bleeding in moms, and there could be an increased risk of jaundice.

To zero-in on that balance, researchers in Sydney, Australia, reviewed almost 3,000 cases of babies born prematurely, before 37 weeks, according to a release. They looked at mortality and morbidity for babies whose umbilical cords were clamped early versus late, and found that delaying it reduced death rates by one-third. Additionally, delayed clamping also led to fewer blood transfusions and an increase in red blood cells.

According to the researchers, this is the first review to show that waiting to clamp can actually improve survival for the baby, in addition to being safe for moms, too.

"We estimate that for every thousand very preterm babies born more than 10 weeks early, delayed clamping will save up to 100 additional lives compared with immediate clamping," said study co-author David Osborn, a neonatal specialist at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Sydney, in a statement.

Overall, Osborn said this could save anywhere from 11,000 to 100,000 lives per year.

The review will be published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and includes new research from another study that will be published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The latest study is from the Australian Placental Transfusion Study, which reviewed 1,566 births more than 10 weeks early from around the world. The data showed that delaying clamping reduced mortality rates to 6.4 percent, down from 9 percent with immediate clamping.

Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends waiting at least 60 seconds before clamping to prevent anemia in babies. They also recommend waiting at least one minute for preterm babies. In December 2016, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists updated their recommendations to delay clamping for babies born prematurely and on-time, stating the hemoglobin boost keeps iron levels healthy for months after birth. However, they also note the increased risk of jaundice.

A newborn photographed in Ukraine in January. Doctors typically clamp the umbilical cord immediately after birth, but new research suggests waiting. ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

As CNN reported in May 2015, delayed clamping became more popular in part due to advocacy from U.K. midwife Amanda Burleigh in the mid-2000s. She began questioning the practice after looking for answers as to why certain children had more health concerns than others.

"I began to question why we were trained to cut the umbilical cord immediately after a baby was born," Burleigh told CNN. "I then started to explore my theory that there must be a link to a child's health based on when the cord is cut."

Since then, more research, reported by NPR, has shown that giving the baby extra time with their umbilical cord provides additional iron and could help with motor and social skills later in life.