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What Parents Need to Know about Umbilical Hernias

Updated: 1 day ago

By Heather Cresswell, NP


A squishy bulge around the belly button may cause concern for parents, but umbilical hernias are usually harmless and go away on their own.


What is an umbilical hernia?


An umbilical hernia is a bulge or swelling around the umbilicus (belly button) that is caused by a small amount of fat, fluid or intestines poking through an opening in the belly muscles. Umbilical hernias can vary from a few millimetres to a few centimetres.





What causes an umbilical hernia?


During pregnancy, babies have a small opening in their abdominal muscles. This opening called an umbilical ring, allows the umbilical cord to pass through and deliver blood between the placenta and the baby.

After birth, the opening in the muscle closes in most babies quite quickly. Although experts don’t know why, the gap stays open for longer in some babies. When fat, fluid, and intestine poke through the muscle around the belly button, this is an umbilical hernia.


How common are umbilical hernias?


About 15-20% of babies will develop an umbilical hernia. They can happen in both term and premature babies, but premature babies or those with low birth weights are more likely to have an umbilical hernia. Some researchers report that as many as about 80% of babies with a birth weight of less than 1.5 kg will develop an umbilical hernia, compared with 20% of bigger-term babies.


Do umbilical hernias need treatment?


Almost all umbilical hernias will go away without treatment by the time a child is 5 years old (many are gone by 1 year of age).

Although some believe taping a coin over the belly button will help a hernia, this is not true and may cause moisture or bacteria to be trapped under the tape. It is best to leave the hernia alone and let time do its work.

Rarely, umbilical hernias may not close on their own and require a simple procedure (a minor surgery). Most experts recommend waiting at least 2 years or even up to 5 years to give the hernia time to close before having a procedure.


What to watch for if your baby has an umbilical hernia


Most umbilical hernias will not cause any problems. They feel squishy and may appear bigger when a baby is crying or straining. They normally do not cause any pain or discomfort.

Very rarely, the intestines that are pushing through the muscle may get stuck and need urgent medical attention. If your baby has an umbilical hernia, seek urgent medical attention if the hernia becomes red or firm, if your baby has unusual vomiting, or if your baby seems to be in pain. Complications from umbilical hernias are very uncommon.


Take home points


  • Umbilical hernias are common and affect about 20% of all babies, but are more common in premature babies;

  • Umbilical hernias are usually harmless and go away on their own;

  • There is no treatment will help an umbilical hernia go away faster;

  • Rarely, an umbilical hernia will require a simple surgery if it doesn’t go away on its own;

  • Seek medical attention if a baby has an umbilical hernia that is red, firm or painful.


Key Reference

Troullioud Lucas AG, Bamarni S, Panda SK, et al. Pediatric Umbilical Hernia. [Updated 2023 Nov 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459294/


Heather Cresswell is a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner and health writer. As a nursing student in 1995, Heather discovered the NICU during a clinical placement and never looked back. She has spent her entire nursing career (more than 25 years and counting) caring for NICU patients (premature babies are her favourite!). When not caring for her tiny patients, Heather is also a health writer and is happy to contribute to the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation.

Heather lives with her family in Burlington, Ontario, and is a proud mom to one son.


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