I made a few different choices for my second birth, one of which was eschewing the cord-cutting tradition. Instead of clamping and cutting J’s umbilical cord we held a sacred severance ceremony, an ancient ritual that involves using flame to slowly burn the cord. It was a beautiful and peaceful few minutes dedicated to J’s final step in the separation from his uterine life.
All photos credited to Stephanie Shirley Photography.
Why Is The Cord Usually Quickly Cut & Clamped?
Much attention is given to the baby’s separation from the uterine cavity but our Western culture hardly grants any significance to the release from his constant uterine companion — the placenta. Modern practice usually prides itself on the efficiency of forcing the placenta out, severing the cord with a bladed tool, and clamping with little or absent ceremony. Then with even less appreciation, the placenta is whisked away like roadkill.
Western practice usually involves the father or a birth worker cutting the cord to symbolize ‘breaking the bond’ between mother and child. Some cultures instead preserve the cord as long as possible in reverence of this bond, such as with lotus birth (allowing the separation to happen naturally within a few days). The Japanese cherish the cord’s relationship to their children by keeping the dried cord in a special box and some Native American tribes wear it in a pouch for the rest of their lives.
By the 1950s, it was regular medicalized practice to rush to cut and clamp the umbilical cord immediately after delivery of a baby, within one minute and often at 15-20 seconds after birth. Midwives have long known the benefits of delaying snipping the cord until it stops pulsing.
Today, thankfully more medical professionals have learned about the benefits of delayed cord separation, which include allowing the baby to keep all the blood that belongs to him (30% of his blood volume remains in the cord and placenta; he won’t receive this if the supply is cut off prematurely). Many recent studies support the benefits of delayed clamping, citing its influence on cerebral oxygenation, iron status, transitional circulation, amount of hemoglobins, intraventricular hemorrhage (a reduction of 50%), and more.
Delayed separation of the cord is what our ancestors would have done — before surgical tools and busy birth practices became the standard. They would have waited for the placenta to be born, then ground it with rocks, burned it, or separated the cord with their teeth (interesting how today’s plastic clamps have tiny ‘teeth’).
It’s considered ‘delayed’ when separated after two minutes of allowing the cord to pulsate; the cord should ideally stop pulsating entirely however, which can take even longer. Waiting for the placenta to release on its own before disconnecting the cord enables immediate skin-to-skin and initiation of breastfeeding.
Early cutting and clamping has been shown to increase risk of brain lesions in the baby (see Joseph Chilton Pierce’s Magical Child). The issue of Rh negative incompatibility (feto-meternal transfusion) was suspected by Robert S. Mendelsohn, M.D., to be caused by early cord clamping (see his book How to Have a Healthy Child… In Spite of Your Doctor).
I have been a midwife for 32 years and have known at a deep level that putting a clamp on and cutting something (the umbilical cord) erect and pulsating vigorously was intrinsically wrong; it’s satisfying to see the evidence at last. Home births are physiological (that’s hard-core science, ahem), including cord management- -listen to the baby. There is only a very brief moment in time to make a decision that may impact on the infant for the next 70 years.Mary Hall, British midwife
Why Burn the Cord?
It’s simple. See the steps below for more details.
It’s safe. A flame separating the cord is no more dangerous than a pair of aseptic yet sharp scissors just as close to the child. With attention to proper use, it poses no increased hazard to nearby persons. The cord is burned a safe distance away from the baby and the size of the flame is controlled by picking an appropriate lighting source.
The flame cauterizes the vein and arteries in the cord. Without access to shiny medical-grade tools in surgical rooms, ancient cultures used this method to sterilize the cord and lower chance of infection.
By heating the cord and driving the last of the blood through there you are giving a profoundly tonic treatment for the baby who has just run a marathon…. Cord burning reduces the risk of bleeding and entry of infections. You are warming digestion which will reduce the tendency for jaundice, besides just creating a strong baby which means a good nurser.Dr. Joseph Kassal, ND
Burning is a gentle alternative that honors the many months baby and mother have been continuously tethered by this lifeline. The process is respectful of the baby’s body and connection to the world he must leave behind. The placenta is, after all, considered in various cultures to be the child’s “first mother.”
The event becomes a lasting memory because it takes longer. Mothers and fathers can enjoy the short-lived ‘birth high’ with delayed separation and during the slow burn, instead of getting distracted by the ‘job’ of cutting the cord.
A burned umbilical stump tends to fall off quicker. When cut, most umbilical cords dry and fall off between one to three weeks, though it can take as long as six. When burned, the cord dries and shrivels rapidly so the process takes only a few days. (J’s fell off completely 3.5 days after birth).
There’s no need for a clamp. The remainder of the cord can simply be knotted within itself or bundled up at any length.
Heat is vitally important to mother and baby in the immediate postpartum. Cord burning is thought to send warm chi energy back to the newborn baby through his umbilicus, and the flame itself illuminates the birth scene in a warm amber glow instead of darkness or harsh artificial lights. On the art of ‘mother roasting’:
Mother roasting refers to the almost universal practice of keeping mothers warm immediately after the birth and in the weeks that follow. It is believed to seal the gateways, which have been opened by the birth, and to keep wind and cold from entering a vulnerable new mother’s body.Rhythm of the Home
For the ‘burn box,’ we used one handmade by my partner. A box helps hold the cord steady (though it’s not necessary for this purpose) and catches dripping wax.
A swatch of cardboard kept heat and potential blood splatter away from J. Some people like to cover this divider with aluminum foil. The divider itself is nice to have but it’s not necessary.
We bought 9″ inch long taper candles online from Aloha Bay. They’re made from non-GMO Eco Palm Wax sourced from sustainable palm groves, are fragrance-free, have cotton wicks for a clean burn, and are available in a variety of colors.
The Burning Process
We decided to use a white candle held by our doula and a light blue one (held together by my partner and our 3.5-year-old child, M.
The placenta bowl was set by my knees on my favorite faux-wolf fur blanket. The cord was draped atop the burning box on my lap, a piece of cardboard made a wall above it, and J began the chain of connection on my chest.
I never left the spot I’d settled into after birthing. J lay skin-to-skin over my heart and nursed while I drank in the sweet event.
We started the burning one hour after birth. We wanted M to be involved in this family affair so we waited for him to get home before beginning. I told him during pregnancy that he could help light his baby brother’s “Birthday Candle” and explained how it would separate him from the placenta that helped him eat and breathe inside my belly.
After M and J met for the first time, the recognition and bonding between brothers continued with M’s interactive presence at the ceremony.
Some people like to recite prayers and well-wishings aloud, but I cherished the sacred human silence offset by the mellow crackling and hissing of the flame as it worked on the cord. Quietly to myself, I thanked the placenta and cord for the sacred work they had completed.
M laid his tiny hand at the end of the blue candle while perched in his father’s lap. As the pair of lit candles drew close to the cord, their flames kissed a chosen spot that slowly twisted, twisted, twisted…
We all stared at the cord as it shrank, darkened, and charred. I expected a dramatic ‘pop-hisss‘ when the flame might hit a pocket of blood, but this didn’t happen in our experience. The cord was burned through about thirteen minutes after we began.
Other Considerations To Make
- You may wish to open a window if your smoke detectors are functional and sensitive.
- Contrary to presumption, it doesn’t smell like burning flesh. It’s a bit smoky though, more like a living room fireplace.
- If planning to birth in a hospital, check their policy about open flames in labor rooms before getting your heart set on cord burning. Ask your care provider if an exception can be made for the controlled flame. If not, you can keep the cord attached between baby and placenta until you get home (pseudo-lotus birth style) and proceed with the burning ceremony in your own territory.
- Don’t forget to take photos or video!
Psst… Did You Know These Umbilical Cord Facts?
1). 35% of babies are born with the cord around their neck. 1% of cords have a true knot at birth.
2). A nuchal cord (around the neck) isn’t as much of a hazard as many mothers believe; studies show it isn’t associated with adverse outcomes. Babies continue to receive oxygen and nutrients through the cord wherever it is, thus aren’t at risk of being strangled if they’re not yet breathing through their nose and mouth. (The fact that just-born babies don’t breathe this way is also why they don’t drown during water births).
3). Babies play with their loop of cord in utero.
4). The cord is filled with a clear, gelatinous mucous called Wharton’s jelly, a substance that protects the internal arteries.
5). The cord develops from the yolk sac which offers nutrients to the fetus before the placenta is functional enough to take over this job.
6). An umbilical cord usually has two arteries (which carry waste-containing blood to the placenta) and one vein (which carries nutrients and oxygen back to baby). The mother’s blood never mixes with her baby’s blood.
7). Cord tissue contains stem cells that can regenerate into different types of cells. A baby can even send stem cells through the cord and placenta to heal damaged organs in his mother. Cord blood contains T-cells that have cancer-fighting properties. (Mother nature intended for this blood to be available to a baby at birth, not decades later through cord blood banks).
8). The baby and cord have lived in the temperature-controlled uterus so when they leave a woman’s body, the cooler air causes the cord to shrivel quickly and the veins to naturally clamp. The process takes between 3 – 20 minutes depending on the warmth of the outside environment (for example, it may take longer for a water birth).
9). The cord can serve as a back-up oxygen supply if baby needs resuscitation after birth; another reason why delayed clamping is ideal.
10). Umbilical cord deformities are on the rise, reports claim. This study found pesticides used for GMO foods were in 93% of pregnant mothers’ blood and 80% of umbilical cords.
11). Umbilical cords reach their full length by the end of the second trimester and are usually 45 – 60 centimeters long, but can range from 19 – 133 centimeters.