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Should you save your baby's umbilical cord blood?

Umbilical Cord Blood Collection and Storage
Cutting a newborn's umbilical cord
Cutting a newborn's umbilical cord

The actual process of collecting cord blood takes just a few minutes, but parents must decide before delivery. After the baby is born, the doctor or other health care provider has a small window of time -- about 15 minutes or so -- in which to clamp and cut the cord, then collect the cord blood. After that, the cord essentially clamps itself off from the exposure to air.

There are two collection methods. In the bag method, the doctor attaches a bag (just like the one attached to an IV) to the cut end of the cord and elevates the cord, allowing the blood to drain into the bag. In the syringe method, the doctor inserts a syringe into the cord and draws blood out, much like blood is drawn from a vein.

Proponents of cord-blood collection say that it's completely harmless to both the mother and child; after all, in most cases, the cord is clamped, cut and thrown away. However, some critics argue that in the rush to collect the cord blood, the procedure is sometimes performed too early. Usually some of the blood flows back into the baby before the cord is clamped, and they argue that early clamping deprives the baby of much-needed oxygenated blood and can even raise the likelihood of certain childhood diseases.

After it's collected, the cord blood must be frozen in liquid nitrogen to preserve it. Theoretically, it can last forever. Here parents must make another decision -- public cord blood bank or private cord blood bank? There's a network of public cord blood banks across the United States and in many other countries. Parents can check to see which bank their hospital uses. The bank provides the collection kit and pays for the blood to be processed, tested and stored; it's completely free to the parents. Sending your baby's cord blood to a public bank is like donating blood; it's not stored for you, but for anybody who needs it.

If parents choose to store the blood in a private cord blood bank, they must pay for the collection, testing and storage. The initial fee can be up to $2,000, and there's an annual storage fee as well, usually around $100. Here's where cord blood banking itself becomes controversial, because unlike public banks, private banks turn a profit. Some private cord blood banks have been accused of misleading parents about the potential uses of their baby's cord blood.

Currently, public cord blood banking has the most acceptance by the general medical community. Private banking is illegal in some countries, because many medical professionals consider the likelihood of the family actually using the blood to be very low. We'll look at that likelihood, as well as how CBE stem cells can be used, next.