Cord Blood Banking: Inside the Basic Facts

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

“I didn’t bank my first child’s cord blood, but I am considering with my second. What exactly is this and is it worth the investment?”

Parents are understandably driven to take any and all measures to keep their children safe, and it is no surprise that many obstetrics and gynecology patients inquire about cord blood banking. While banked cord blood can be life-saving for children and their close relatives, parents must look at the financial costs relative to the likelihood of need — a determination that may vary based on family medical history. Understanding the basic facts about cord blood banking is an important precursor to discussing this with a physician.

Why families bank cord blood

The blood from a newborn’s umbilical cord is commonly drained and discarded shortly after birth, but some parents opt to have this blood stored in what is often a private bank for potential future use, called cord blood banking.

 The blood in a child’s umbilical cord has been found to have a rich supply of stem cells, which can differentiate into a variety of hematopoietic cell lines. Storing it in a bank means the blood can be used to treat a number of blood-borne illnesses should they occur in your child or a close relative, some of which include leukemia, lymphoma, and anemia. The banked blood allows families facing these illnesses to avoid more invasive procedures, such as a bone marrow transplant.

Evaluating costs and your family’s needs

Families should fully understand the cost of cord blood banking relative to its likely use. The setup alone of a cord blood bank costs thousands of dollars, and the banks often charge hundreds of dollars annually to maintain.

 Parents with a history of blood-borne diseases in their family may want to strongly consider banking their child’s cord blood, and they should discuss this option with a physician. Those without such medical history must weigh whether a low likelihood of needing a cord blood infusion is worth the investment.   

A 2008 study, “Lifetime Probabilities of Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation in the U.S.,” published in Biology of Bone Marrow Transplant, found that the lifetime probabilities of undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) in the U.S. — the process by which cord blood cells are used to treat blood-borne illnesses — range from 0.23% to 0.98%. Further, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists do not support the practice of blood banking for most people.

 There is no physical harm to banking this often-discarded blood — and it can be done as a precaution if money is no object — but this is not the case for most families.

Cord blood banks are often private

Parents should be aware that while there are some public blood banks, often affiliated with universities, most of the banks that store cord blood are private. Once the blood is drained following your child’s birth, it is turned over to the blood bank and is no longer in possession or control of the hospital. When parents opt to bank their child’s cord blood, they must work with the bank to determine legal matters surrounding use and access.

Whether a child’s risk of blood-borne illnesses is worth the cost of cord blood banking is a determination only parents can make. Families with limited financial resources must weigh other areas in which this money could be spent, such as saving for a child’s college education. As families strive to ensure the future health and happiness of their children, deciding where best to divert financial resources can be challenging. Gathering facts is the first step.

Hong-Thao N. Thieu, MD, is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Tufts Medical Center, and director of the hospital’s OB/GYN Residency Program. Dr. Thieu is also an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.