Expectant parents have a number of big financial decisions to make. Increasingly among them, what to do with baby's cord blood.
Cord blood is a hot commodity. Taken from a newborn's umbilical cord shortly after birth, it's a rich source of stem cells that can be used to treat dozens of disorders, including several forms of leukemia, lymphoma and anemia. Parents have the option to discard it, donate it or store it with a private cord blood bank.
Private cord blood banks let families store the blood for a fee, in the event that they might need it in the future. Public cord blood banks let families donate the blood for free, where it can be matched with patients in need or used for medical research.
The pitches for cord blood banking, particularly for private banking, are everywhere—tables at baby fairs, brochures in doctors' waiting rooms, pop-ups in pregnancy apps and ads in parenting magazines. July is even National Cord Blood Awareness Month. But doctors urge caution before signing up for private cord blood storage.
"What I tell parents is, this is a choice—and you should make an informed choice," said Dr. Sergio Giralt, the immediate past president of the American Society for Blood & Marrow Transplantation (ASBMT).
Private cord blood banking can be an expensive decision. Depending on the private bank, current promotions and whether you're storing cord blood, cord tissue or both, initial processing fees can run from roughly $500 to $2,500, with annual storage fees of $100 to $300 each year thereafter. That's no small change, considering the USDA estimates middle-class parents already spend $12,940 on baby during the first year, a figure that doesn't include the cost of giving birth or starting a college savings fund.
Private banks may waive some or all of the fees if clients already have a family member who stands to benefit from the banked cells, though the criteria for qualifying—and the savings—vary from bank to bank. Donation to a public bank is free.
Doctors say there's good reason for parents-to-be to consider taking some action on baby's cord blood. "It's a precious resource," said Dr. William Shearer, a professor of pediatrics and immunology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. But much of that resource is wasted. "Ninety percent of cord blood is discarded still today, and this is a life-saving treatment for a lot of people," said Jen Bruursema, senior director of global healthcare communications at Cord Blood Registry, a private bank in San Bruno, California.
But should you bank, or donate? Consider the likelihood of using those stem cells. Several medical groups—including the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the ASBMT and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—have issued policy statements and opinions related to cord blood banking. The groups recommend public bank donation over private banking because the cord blood has limited personal applications.