Umbilical Cord Problems in the Womb: What You Need to Know

Birth Injury, Causes of Cerebral Palsy, Prenatal Care and Childbirth

circular illustration of a fetus in the womb with menacing red highlights and an orange distressed texture background

The umbilical cord is a lifeline for a fetus as it develops in the womb. It connects the baby to its mother, housing blood vessels that provide the baby with oxygen and nutrients and dispose of waste. The development of the umbilical cord is an integral part of pregnancy, and the cord itself is monitored alongside the fetus to ensure that a pregnancy is progressing properly.

Ultrasounds can pick up umbilical cord problems in the womb during pregnancy, and the cord is also monitored during delivery to ensure that it is positioned correctly and functions as it should. Learn about some common umbilical cord problems and what can happen when these issues aren’t addressed.

Umbilical Cord Prolapse

An umbilical cord prolapse happens when the umbilical cord falls through the open cervix into the birth canal during a baby’s delivery. This can lead to the cord being trapped, twisted, or pinched, reducing the amount of oxygen available to the baby during labor. While this is more common in preterm deliveries, there are other risk factors associated with cord prolapses, including:

  • Low birth weight (i.e., less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces at birth)
  • Babies born in a breech position, so they are not head-down during delivery
  • An overly long umbilical cord
  • Multiple pregnancies
  • A healthcare provider rupturing the membranes to kickstart or speed up delivery
  • Excessive amniotic fluid, also known as polyhydramnios

Cord prolapses are relatively common, but they still occur in less than 1% of births. Identifying a cord prolapse as early as possible can enable medical professionals to take action to ensure that the baby isn’t deprived of oxygen during delivery. This can involve using blood gas analysis to determine the baby’s condition, which is recommended for high-risk births by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In some cases, an OBGYN can reposition the cord or the baby, and other times a caesarian section is required to ensure that the baby receives the necessary oxygen during delivery.

Single Umbilical Artery

This condition occurs when one of the arteries from the umbilical cord is missing. It happens in around 1% of singleton pregnancies and 5% of multiple pregnancies. There is no known cause for a single umbilical artery, but it is one of the things that is checked during ultrasound scans so that it can be identified as early as possible. Having a single umbilical artery can cause health problems in babies, including issues with their heart, liver, or digestive system. If a single umbilical artery is detected, healthcare providers will usually request additional monitoring to ensure that any issues can be identified and treated as early as possible.

Nuchal Cord

When the umbilical cord is wrapped around a baby’s neck, it is known as a nuchal cord. Babies with their umbilical cord wrapped around their necks are often born perfectly healthy. However, it can cause their heart rate to drop, so it is usually monitored closely by medical providers when it is detected. When the medical team knows about a nuchal cord, they can often slip it off during delivery to avoid depriving the baby of oxygen.

Umbilical Cord Knots and Cysts

The umbilical cord can become knotted during the early stages of pregnancy as the baby moves around, particularly when the cord is longer than average. It is also common in pregnancies of identical twins who share an amniotic sac and can end up with their cords tangled together. If a knot is pulled tight, it can deprive the baby of oxygen, so healthcare providers usually check for knots during ultrasound appointments to allow them to intervene if necessary. Cysts and pseudocysts can cause a dangerous swelling in the umbilical cord, so these are usually checked for as well.

The Impact of Umbilical Cord Problems

Umbilical cord problems are relatively common and are often detected during pregnancy. This can be either through routine scanning or when the mother reports symptoms such as frequent fetal hiccups, which can be a symptom of cord compression or prolapse. In cases where an umbilical cord problem is not detected until the mother is in labor, the cord may snap during delivery, or there may be other issues that occur.

If umbilical cord problems are left untreated or managed inappropriately, it can result in oxygen deprivation. This is a significant concern as it can cause brain damage, developmental delays, and long-term health problems such as cerebral palsy.

Parents who are concerned that their child may have suffered a birth injury due to undetected, untreated, or mismanaged umbilical cord problems may wish to find out whether they have grounds for a legal claim. In cases where medical professionals may have made a mistake or failed to act quickly enough, the families of those affected may be able to secure a financial settlement that will help them to meet the costs of caring for a child with additional needs.

The attorneys at Janet, Janet & Suggs are experts in helping families of children with cerebral palsy. If you believe that your child or a loved one’s cerebral palsy was caused by medical malpractice or negligence, you may have a case and be eligible to receive compensation. Contact us today and let us help you and your family obtain the compensation you deserve to help you provide the best care for your loved one.



Claire Surles, RN
Reviewed by:
Claire Surles, RN
Registered Nurse

Claire comes to JJS after a 10-year career as a labor and delivery nurse. She dedicated her hospital efforts to advocating for families, providing the safest birthing environment possible as Newborn Admission Nurse at UMMC St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. Her passion for helping those who experienced losses at any stage of gestation led to her appointment as Coordinator of the hospital’s ROOTS perinatal loss program. READ FULL BIO

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