It’s not uncommon for expectant mothers to find brochures on donating cord blood in the waiting rooms of their obstetricians’ offices.

But what’s the hype around umbilical cord blood from newborns? As a parent, you might also wonder why you should consider possibly donating to a cord blood bank.  

Why is cord blood valuable?

Turns out, a baby’s umbilical cord blood is actually a rich source of stem cells that can become different cells used to replace or repair diseased or damaged organs and tissues. As Dr. Lisa Wilson , a gynecologist and obstetrician at Novant Health Providence OB/GYN, points out, “the idea behind collecting a baby’s cord blood is that it could be used as treatment in the future.” In other words, if the stem cells from the cord blood are a match with someone who needs it down the road, they could be lifesaving. Donating cord blood is harmless to both the mother and the child since the blood is collected immediately after birth when the child is no longer attached to the umbilical cord.

Why are stem cells so important?

For the past 20 years, researchers have been captivated by the ability of stem cells to turn into different cells and replace damaged or broken cells. A growing body of research on stem cell therapy has shown that it holds promise to treat chronic diseases like diabetes , and many others.  

“We are probably scratching the surface of what technology can do right now with stem cells from cord blood,” said Wilson. “We are treating diseases that are fairly unheard-of right now but a lot of people think that in the future we might be treating fairly common diseases like diabetes, heart disease or even Alzheimer’s.”  

How is cord blood used now?  

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that by 2013, more than 30,000 blood cell-related stem cell transplants were performed around the world using cord blood.

Right now, cord blood is only approved to be used to treat patients with blood cancers like leukemias and some blood and immune system-related disorders like sickle cell disease, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration .  

What are the options to consider?

If you are interested in exploring the possibility of donating your child’s cord blood, Wilson advises that you consider the difference between donating to a private cord blood bank and a public cord blood bank.  

Private cord blood banks are for-profit businesses that charge parents to store their cord blood so that their family members could get access to  it in the future as a kind of an “insurance policy” in the event of a major illness. The cost of privately banking your cord blood can range from $1,400 to $3,000 for the process of donating and may approximately cost another $100 per year to store it.  

It’s unclear how long cord blood can be stored for after it’s frozen. In fact, some researchers have even found that few transplants actually do use privately banked cord blood, especially when it’s donated without a specific recipient in mind. On the other hand, public cord banks like The Carolinas Cord Blood Bank, a nonprofit that clinics such as Novant Health Providence OB/GYN works with, use the donated cord blood stem cells to treat anyone that’s a match. In other words, it’s difficult for parents to go back months or years later to specifically request to use the cord blood they donated. But unlike private cord blood banks, public cord blood banks do not charge parents any fees for donating.  

If you’re a soon-to-be-mother, or know one who might be curious, you can visit any of one Novant Health’s obstetrics and gynecology clinics and ask your provider about the process. Mothers at any stage of their pregnancy can explore the possibility of donating, and will undergo a testing and questionnaire process to ensure that the cord blood is coming from a healthy donor.  

In 2010, Shavonne Clark decided to donate her cord blood because she thought the possibility of saving another person’s life was inspiring. She learned about the option to donate from one of her providers and was moved by the fact that it could benefit others in the future.   

 “It’s meaningful to be a part of something that’s bigger and be able to share this story with my daughter about how she took a part as well,” said Clark, now 47.

Childbirth is unpredictable — but thinking through your preferences ahead of time can make you feel more confident the day of. Download our birth preparation guide.