Posted on 06/06/2022

Umbilical cord prolapse explained

Umbilical cord prolapse explained

The umbilical cord is a vital organ that develops in the early stages of pregnancy. It provides all the essential nutrients and oxygen for your baby to develop throughout the pregnancy and up to the delivery.

When an umbilical cord prolapses, health care professionals must take immediate action. Any delay or mistake can result in grave injuries to both mother and baby.

There are many birth injuries associated with the umbilical cord which can have a lifelong effect for you and your family. 

After reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of what happens when an umbilical cord becomes prolapsed and which steps you should take next. 

What is umbilical cord prolapse?

Umbilical cord prolapse is a pregnancy emergency that can occur before or during labor. 

When this happens, the umbilical cord slips through through the cervix after your water has broken, either before the baby passes through the birth canal or at the same time as the baby moves through the birth canal.

When UC prolapse occurs, the umbilical cord is further put at risk to be compressed, which can lead to severe and lifethreatning consequences.

Studies have found that between 1-6 women per 1000 pregnancies will experience umbilical cord prolapse.

The most common cause of UC prolapse is a premature rupture of the membranes, or in other words, when a mother’s water breaks before she’s in labor (experiencing contractions) and the baby’s head begins to move through the birth canal.

While the chances of an umbilical cord prolapse is relatively low, immediate action and treatment must be provided because the risks involved can be fatal.

Types of UC prolapse and the risks involved

There are two types of UC prolapse, occult and overt.

Occult umbilical cord prolapse is when the umbilical cord passes through the cervix along with the fetus and is neither visible nor palpable. This means an obstetrician would not be able to see or feel the umbilical cord to be able to make a diagnosis. 

Overt umbilical cord prolapse is when the umbilical cord moves through the birth canal before the baby and is both visible and palpable. 

Ultrasounds can help confirm the diagnosis of UC prolapse, however ordering the test can put a delay in treatment. 

If umbilical cord prolapse is not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner, your baby may experience fetal hypoxia and other health conditions.  

The most common health complications associated with UC prolapse include the following. 

Fetal hypoxia

Fetal hypoxia is when the baby is deprived of sufficient oxygen. Without immediate treatment, your baby is at risk for lifelong disabilities and brain damage.


Malpresentation is when the baby is in an unusual position as it begins to move through the birth canal. This often is associated with breech deliveries. When malpresentation occurs, your obstetrician may need to use forceps or a vacuum extractor to assist with delivery. 

While these tools are helpful, they can also cause damages to your baby, such as broken or fractured bones or injuries to their nerves. 

Premature birth 

A premature birth is when the baby is born three or more weeks before their expected due date. A premature birth reduces the time needed for your baby to develop properly. While premature births are common, there are many risks involved, such as infections, asthma and SIDS. 


Polyhydrammnios is when there is excessive amount of amniotic fluid present. Amniotic fluid is actually good for your baby as it surrounds the fetus in a fluid-like protective sac. However too much amniotic fluid is associated with genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome and Edward’s Syndrome.

Prolonged labor

Prolonged labor is when labor lasts 20 hours or more as a first-time mother, or 18 hours or more if you have previously given birth. 

Failing to progress in labor can also result in further health complications for both mother and baby, like fetal distress, infections, intracranial hemorrhaging and low oxygen levels.

If you had a UC prolapse and you or your baby suffered any resulting birth injuries, then you should file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Diagnosis and treatment

With overt umbilical cord prolapse, the diagnosis is confirmed with the visibility of the umbilical cord protruding or from feeling a soft pulsating mass during a vaginal examination.

Occult umbilical cord prolapse is more difficult to diagnose. The abnormal fetal heart rate is typically the first indication of an occult UC prolapse.

The urgency for treatment depends on how fast your newborns heart is beating.

An abnormal heart rate for newborns facing UC prolapse is characterized into three groups:

  • Bradycardia (slow heart rate)
  • Recurrent decelerations
  • Normal 

A baby with bradycardia has the highest risks for detrimental adverse affects from an umbilical cord prolapse. 

The treatment for umbilical cord prolapse is giving birth. 

Typically, a cesearan delivery, or a c-section, is the safest and most common plan of action. However, if the birth is accelerated or about to begin, then a vaginal delivery is may be the best option, albeit not the most preferred due to the risks involved.

There are also two maneuvers that your obstetrician should perform which helps alleviate any compression of the umbilical cord and further prevent cord prolapse beyond the mother’s vagina. 

These maneuvers include the knee-chest position and the Trendelenburg position.

Your next steps

If you were pregnant and your umbilical cord prolapsed, and you and your baby suffered resulting birth injuries from your doctor’s negligence or malpratice—then you should file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Although a prolapsed umbilical cord is an emergency situation, there are steps that your obstetrician can and should take before, during, and after to ensure a safe and healthy delivery.

Any delay, misstep or lack of action is grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Fill out this form to speak with the best medical malpractice team that Michigan has to offer—for free. 

With over 25 years in the industry providing legal counsel for medical malpractice claims, the team at Grover Lewis Johnson will review your case, share their insight, and determine if they can win your case.