During pregnancy, your placenta and umbilical cord work together to give your baby the oxygen and nutrients he needs to grow. Once your baby is born, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut. After a few minutes your uterus pushes out the placenta. At this point, your health care provider may collect the blood that remains in the umbilical cord and the placenta, in a process that is referred to as “cord blood banking."
There was little interest in cord blood until the 1970s when scientists discovered that it contained stem cells. Stems cells are unique given their ability to develop into different cell types (red blood cell, brain cell, muscle cell) or remain stem cells. For example, in the intestinal tract or bone marrow, stem cells can divide to replace or repair damaged cells. Donor stem cells are used to treat patients who are unable to produce normal cells due to disease, radiation, or chemotherapy. By giving people access to banked stem cells, cord blood banks make it easier for seriously ill patients to get the treatment they need.
There are two cord blood banking options—private and public.
Public cord blood banking
If you are interested in donating cord blood to a public bank, you will need to secure a special kit with detailed instructions; the kit must be ordered from the cord blood bank before your baby is born. (Your prenatal care provider can help you identify the nearest public cord blood bank.) In most cases, parents bring the kit, along with any relevant paperwork, to the hospital with them. You will also want to discuss your desire to donate cord blood with your health care provider so that you can agree about the timing of cord clamping and blood collection.
Cord blood is collected shortly after birth by your birth attendant (doctor or midwife). After delivery, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut. Approximately one-third to one-half cup of blood is then collected from the section of cord attached to the placenta and from the placenta itself. The blood is then sent to the cord blood bank.
Public banking means that the stem cells will be deposited in a non-profit cord blood bank and made available for research or for sick children. Public donation is free and anonymous.
Private cord blood banking
If you choose private banking, the stem cells are stored at a commercial facility for your family’s use. Private banking can cost $1,000–$3,000 for collection and storage. Additional fees are often assessed for the collection kit, courier service to the cord blood bank, and annual maintenance (ongoing storage). Many private banks offer monthly payment plans for ongoing storage, which cost on average about $200 per year.
Before you decide in favor of private banking, you should know that unless your family has a history of diseases requiring bone marrow transplant (e.g., leukemia or lymphoma, aplastic anemia, or sickle cell anemia), it is extremely unlikely that your child would ever need his own cord blood. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), private cord blood banking “should be encouraged when there is a full sibling with a medical condition that could potentially benefit from cord blood transplantation. If banking for personal or family use, parents should know that most conditions that might be helped by cord blood stem cells already exist in the infant’s cord blood.” In other words, your own baby’s cord blood could not be used in these cases due to the presence of premalignant changes in stem cells. The AAP adds that “storing cord blood as ‘biological insurance’ should be discouraged because there currently is no scientific data to support” the use of a baby’s stem cells for his own future treatment. Any child who develops a medical condition that would benefit from cord blood treatment could turn to public banks.
For more information on cord blood donation, visit the Be The Match website.