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What is Cord Blood Banking? Pediatrician Explains

What is cord blood banking?

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What is cord blood banking?

You may have heard about the increasing popularity of cord blood banking and wondered what it was all about and if it’s something you should be doing. Maybe you’re about to have a baby soon and are concerned about protecting his or her future health. If so, you’ll find some basic answers below to get you started with what you need to know.

Why is cord blood beneficial?

Cord blood comes from what is left in the umbilical cord and placenta after birth. As you likely know, the umbilical cord is what connects a baby to the oxygen and nutrients a baby needs to live and grow while inside his or her mother’s womb. Just before a baby is due to be born, extra cells are transferred to boost both the mother and the baby’s immune systems to prepare for the difficulties of labor. Thus, right after delivery the cord blood is especially rich in stem cells. 

The stem cells in cord blood are called hematopoietic stem cells. The majority of cells in our bodies can only copy themselves, but these particular stem cells can grow into several different types of blood cells. These cells are also found in bone marrow and can be used to treat about 80 different diseases. Bone marrow stem cells were first used to regenerate blood and immune cells for post-chemotherapy patients. About thirty years ago, cord blood stem cells began to be used instead. Today, this has occurred in more than 40,000 transplants globally. Stem cells from your newborn haven’t aged or been exposed to environmental factors that could harm them, making them potentially the best stem cells available.

Hematopoietic stem cells can treat blood disorders, immune disorders, and certain cancers, including:

  • Leukemia
  • Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Severe combined immunodeficiency diseases

What are the benefits of cord blood v. bone marrow?

There are many benefits to getting stem cell donations from cord blood instead of bone marrow.

  1. More matches can be made in cord blood transplants than in bone marrow transplants.
  2. Collecting bone marrow can be painful and risky. Collecting cord blood is essentially painless and risk-free for both the mother and child. 
  3. Bone marrow has to be used quickly after its collection, while cord blood can be frozen and stored for several years.  
  4. In cancer treatments, cord blood stem cells can help strengthen the immune system, while bone marrow cells can’t. 
  5. Compared to adult stem cells from bone marrow, cord blood stem cells are half as likely to be rejected, especially since they almost never carry infectious disease. 

One slight disadvantage to cord blood is that it doesn’t contain many stem cells (though still ten times more than bone marrow), and sometimes units from multiple donors need to be combined to be used for an adult. 

Should I store cord blood for the health of my child?

The short answer is probably not. A donation that’s used on the same child it was taken from is called an autologous transplant, and they are very rare. This is mainly because a child’s own stem cells cannot be used to treat genetic diseases—as the stem cells in their cord blood will have the same genes that are causing the disease in the first place—nor would the cells be able to treat their leukemia. 

A donation of stem cells to another person is called an allogenic transplant, and these are much more common. There does need to be a good match between cells in the donor and recipients’ bodies in order for a transplant not to be rejected. Siblings, for example, have about a twenty-five percent chance of being a match, and a fifty percent chance of being a partial match. Parents have a hundred percent chance of being a partial match. If a sibling or other family member has a known medical condition that could benefit from a cord blood donation, then collecting one meant for them is a viable possibility.

How is the cord blood retrieved?

Once the baby has been safely delivered, the umbilical cord is cut and clamped. A needle is then inserted into the cord with a bag attached to draw out at least forty milliliters of blood. This procedure takes about ten minutes and is completely painless. 

If a baby is premature or if the clamping of the umbilical cord had to be delayed, it’s possible not enough blood will be able to be collected. Priority will always be given to caring for the mother and baby’s health over collection of cord blood. 

If you’re interested in retrieving the cord blood after your baby’s birth, it is important to talk to your obstetrician, the hospital you’ll be delivering at, and the cord blood bank where you’ll be storing the blood. You’ll need to have the collection kit at least six weeks before your due date. Often, you will also need to provide a family medical history and have the mother’s blood tested beforehand.

How should I store a cord blood collection?

You can store your retrieved cord blood at either a public or private bank. Public cord blood banks do not charge to store your collection, but the blood you store there is meant for donations to those who match enough and may need it for a transplant. This is especially important for ethnic minorities who lack representation in cord banks and may have trouble finding a match. 

At a private bank, you will need to pay an annual fee for storage, but the cord blood you store there can be used as you desire. This means either using it for your baby is an autologous transplant (which are rare) or in a directed donation for a family member. 

All banks will test a mother’s blood for genetic disorders and infections beforehand, and test the cord blood after collection. All important information about the cord blood will be tracked via computer for easy access for anyone who needs it.

What are the benefits of a cord tissue donation?

Cord tissue also contains a large source of stem cells, though they are different from that of cord blood stem cells. Cord tissue contains mesenchymal stem cells. These cells form bone, cartilage, and tissue cells and are behind potentially revolutionary research in regenerative medicine. Scientists are looking into whether mesenchymal stems cells could aid in tissue repair to reduce inflammation; treat burns, wounds, and heal other severe damage to the body; and improve autoimmune disorders

These cells could also potentially help treat conditions that affect degeneration of cartilage, muscle, and nerve cells, including cerebral palsy, Parkinsons, and Alzheimers. There have been more than two hundred clinical trials looking into these treatments already. Donation of cord tissue could help aid these research endeavors. In fact, if regenerative medicine advances as scientists hope, it’s possible one in three people in the United States will benefit from it in their lifetime.


There are many benefits to collecting your infant’s cord blood. It is, however, extremely unlikely that it will directly benefit your infant’s health. In fact, there have been just over 400 autologous cord blood transplants in the United States in the last twenty years. By contrast, tens of thousands of people have already benefited from allogenic transplants. If research advances in the way scientists hope it will, it could soon be millions more who will need the help of cord blood stem cells for their health. 

If you are interested in cord blood banking, talk to your doctor about what you need to do to prepare for the baby’s arrival. For the essential medications for the baby, be sure to look at our newborn essentials list page and stock up. 

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