Expectant parents should consider banking their infant's umbilical cord blood, as more research points to cord blood's effectiveness in treating life-threatening diseases.

That message, and an explanation on the differences between public and private cord blood banks, is featured in a new policy statement released today by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP encourages families to consider donating to a public cord blood bank, which is free to parents.

Publicly-stored cord blood is 30 times more likely to be used than cord blood stored privately for personal use.

"Most parents will never need cord blood for their own family's use, but they can donate this precious lifesaving gift to benefit others," said Dr. William T. Shearer, an author of the policy statement. "We expect the need for these therapies that rely on stem cell transplantation to grow, and would like families to understand the choices they have."

Cord blood, taken from the placenta of healthy newborn infants, was routinely discarded until it was discovered to be an excellent source of stem cells.

A stem cell transplant can be used to treat children with cancer and other diseases, including metabolic, immune and blood disorders. Increasingly, research is showing successful outcomes from transplantation of stem cells, according to the AAP.

Donating cord blood is safe for the baby and it doesn't interfere with labor and delivery. Because families must register ahead of time -- so a collection kit can be sent and used after the baby's delivery -- the AAP recommends that physicians talk with families during an early prenatal visit.

Cord blood donation should be arranged by the 34th week of pregnancy.

While public cord blood banks serve patients worldwide by matching individuals in need, private banks store the cord blood for the donor family's potential own use. Unless the family shares a known genetic defect, however, the personal use of cord blood is rarely necessary, and its use to the child is limited.

For example, if a child develops leukemia, that child's stored cord blood could not be used, because it has the potential to progress to leukemia. Families also must pay a fee, ranging from $1,300 to $2,300 upfront and an annual fee of $100 to $175, which is typically not covered by insurance.

Meanwhile, more cord blood donations from ethnic/minority populations are needed to meet increasing need.

Deciding to donate cord blood can require some homework on the part of parents. Information on public cord blood banks located in major metropolitan cities is available on the Parent's Guide to Cord Blood website. (parentsguidecordblood.org/en/public-banking) Other resources include Be the Match, which lists participating cord blood collection hospitals. (bethematch.org/).

Parents giving birth at a hospital that does not participate in a program may still donate cord blood by enrolling in a mail-in donation program.

Another parent resource is available at the AAP website, HealthyChildren.org. (www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/prenatal/decisions-to-make/Pages/Should-We-Store-Our-Newborns-Cord-Blood.aspx )

"The research is evolving in this area, which is exciting news for patients whose lives may someday depend on a donation of cord blood," Dr. Shearer said. "The hope is that more doctors will discuss the options with expectant parents well in advance of their baby's birth, so they understand the tremendous potential to help others in medical need."

• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village. For more information, visit www.healthy children.org.