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  • Paula Schnebelt

Nuchal Cords: Debunking the Myth

Have you ever paid attention to the fear surrounding a nuchal cord? Have you ever watched a video of or witnessed a birth, and seen the health care provider hurry to slip the cord from around the baby’s neck? Unfortunately, this is a scenario that is all too familiar in today’s maternity care system. This “complication” is one that is feared by most health care professionals, and often deemed as being a huge risk factor and any child that survives the occurrence of one is “lucky.” For those of you that don’t know, a nuchal cord occurs when the umbilical cord becomes wrapped around the baby’s neck. Dr. Rachel Reed points out that around a third of all babies are born with the umbilical cord around their neck (crazy, right?) and sometimes a nuchal cord can occur and also resolve itself in the womb, before the baby is even born. The problem is that so many women’s healthcare professionals do not realize the reality of a nuchal cord; research has found that a nuchal cord is not associated with morbidity or mortality for the baby during pregnancy (MidwifeThinking). Going off this idea, it is important to remember that the umbilical cord acts like a telephone cord. It has the ability to stretch and lengthen, without severely disrupting and compromising oxygen flow. And, our body has methods in place to prevent potential problems, including a substance called Wharton’s Jelly which protects the blood vessels in the umbilical cord against compression, knots, etc. Unfortunately, a common “fix” to a nuchal cord often involves the healthcare professional pulling or stretching the cord in order to pull it from around the baby’s head. The problem with this, however, is that “loosening the cord will usually involve some traction which can risk tearing the cord and subsequent bleeding (from the baby), or partial detachment of the placenta” (MidwifeThinking). It is entirely normal for a newborn to either birth through the loop, or come out with it still wrapped, and interfering with this process can often cause more harm than merely leaving the cord be.

It is extremely important that we educate others about the frequency and normalcy of nuchal cords, and also debunk the myths that suggest they are “a huge risk” or that they need to be immediately slipped off the baby’s neck. In most cases, a nuchal cord poses very little threat to a newborn and interfering with the physiological process of birth poses a much stronger risk of interfering with the health and well-being of mother and baby. It’s interesting how much the U.S. maternity care system is concerned about all of the potential risks of the things that happen physiologically, but fail to voice concern over our constant interference with birth, and how that weighs much more heavily on birth outcomes than common and often harmless physiological occurrences such as nuchal cords.