What Does The Umbilical Cord Connect To? All About the BellyButton

A baby's umbilical cord is more complex than you'd think! Image by Gray's Anatomy.

A baby’s umbilical cord is more complex than you’d think! Image by Gray’s Anatomy.

What does the umbilical cord connect to inside the baby? Do we forever have this tube running through us that connects to all our vital systems?

It is difficult to talk about the umbilical cord, and what happens to it, without mentioning the placenta, as this is the system by which the mother’s body supports fetal growth and development during pregnancy.

Umbilical Cord and Placenta: How They Connect

In the womb, the umbilical cord is usually attached at the center of the baby’s side of the placenta, or afterbirth. The placenta is where your baby’s blood picks up oxygen and nutrients from your circulation, leaving behind her waste and carbon dioxide. Your body easily eliminates these and your blood returns to the placenta, rich with new nutrients.

The maternal side of the afterbirth has been attached to your uterine wall since early pregnancy. After your baby is born, the placenta detaches and comes out, because it is no longer needed. It is flexible, and births easily; you can ask your caregiver to show you its structures and the membranes that formed the bag of waters after you have your baby.

Inside the Umbilical Cord

Inside the umbilical cord are three vessels: two arteries and one vein. The vein carries oxygen and nutrient-rich blood from the placenta back to your baby’s liver. There, vessels branch out to help oxygenated blood reach the heart’s four chambers. An extra opening, the foramen ovale, allows blood to flow from the left to right atria, or upper chambers. Only a little blood leaves the right atrium to go to the lungs, thanks to the presence of a tiny shunt, called the ductus arteriosis, which directs blood away from the pulmonary artery into the aorta, where it can better serve your baby’s brain and other parts of her body.

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At delivery, when your newborn takes her first breaths, the foramen ovale and the ductus arteriosis close up and disappear, so that higher blood pressure flows to the lungs to pick up vital oxygen. Circulation to the placenta then ceases—the arteries close first to prevent blood leaving your baby’s body.  The umbilical vein continues to provide oxygenated blood to your newborn for an average of 15 minutes (unless it is clamped and cut sooner). The umbilical cord will pulse until the process is complete.

Umbilical Cord Stump

In the following days, the umbilical cord stump will dry up and fall away; it leaves a scar we call the belly button. The wound needs special care to help prevent infection during this time.

What happens on the inside of the belly button? Within a week of birth, the umbilical vein inside the body becomes fibrous. It becomes the round ligament of the liver, which extends from the umbilicus to the transverse fissure, where it joins another ligament. Together they support and separate the liver lobes.

Navel Problems: Foramen Ovale and Hernias

Occasionally the foramen ovale does not close completely at birth, resulting in an extra heart sound, or murmur, and possible circulatory problems. Depending on the severity of this defect, treatment varies from watch-and-wait to medicine or surgery. However, the majority of newborns retain no remnants of fetal circulation.

In addition, the abdominal wall near the navel may be weak in some babies, allowing part of the intestines to protrude and push the skin out. Such hernias occur more frequently in girls and in babies of African descent. They are seldom serious and often close gradually over time; treatment is generally reserved until after the child reaches the age of 5. There is no scientific evidence that banding or placing coins on the umbilicus can prevent or treat a hernia, and these practices could increase the risk of infection.

Placentas, Bellybuttons, and Babies

Many animals grow placentas to nourish their young in utero, and they have belly buttons to prove it because the umbilical cord is an essential part of this system. As humans, a conspicuous navel is life-long evidence of our birth.

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