Is Newborn Jaundice?
Newborn jaundice is a yellowing of a baby’s skin and eyes.
Newborn jaundice is very common and can occur when babies have a high level of
bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during normal breakdown of red blood
cells. In older babies and adults, the liver processes bilirubin, which then
passes it through the intestinal tract. However, a newborn’s still-developing
liver may not be mature enough to remove bilirubin.
The good news is that in most cases, newborn jaundice goes
away on its own as a baby’s liver develops and as the baby begins to feed,
which helps bilirubin pass through the body.
In most cases, jaundice will disappear within two to three
weeks. Jaundice that persists longer than three weeks may be a symptom of an
underlying condition. Additionally, high levels of bilirubin can put a baby at
risk for deafness, cerebral palsy, or other forms of brain damage. That’s why
Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all newborn babies be examined
for jaundice every time their vital signs are measured (or at least every eight
to 12 hours), before discharge from the hospital, and again a few days after
Causes Newborn Jaundice?
Babies at highest risk for developing newborn jaundice are:
- premature babies, or babies born before 37
- babies who aren’t getting enough breast milk,
either because they are having a hard time feeding or because their mothers’
milk isn’t in yet
- babies whose blood type isn’t compatible with the
blood type of their mother
Babies whose blood types aren’t compatible with their
mothers’ can develop a buildup of antibodies that destroy babies’ red blood
cells and cause a sudden rise in bilirubin levels.
Other causes of newborn jaundice include:
- bruising at birth or other internal bleeding
- liver problems
- an infection
- an enzyme deficiency
- an abnormality in your baby’s red blood cells
Are the Symptoms of Newborn Jaundice?
The first sign of jaundice is a yellowing of a baby’s skin
and eyes. The yellowing may begin within two to four days after birth and may start
in the face before spreading down across the body. Bilirubin levels typically
peak between three to seven days after birth.
If a finger lightly pressed on a baby’s skin causes that
area of skin to become yellow, it’s likely a sign of jaundice.
When to Call a Doctor
Most cases of jaundice are normal, but sometimes it can
indicate an underlying medical condition. Severe jaundice also increases the
risk of bilirubin passing into the brain, which can cause permanent brain
damage. Contact your doctor if you notice the following symptoms:
- the jaundice spreads or becomes more intense
- your baby develops a fever over 100°F
- your baby’s yellow coloring deepens
- your baby feeds poorly, appears listless or
lethargic, and makes high-pitched cries
Is Newborn Jaundice Diagnosed?
The hospital discharges most mothers and newborns within 72
hours of delivery. It’s very important for parents to bring their babies in for
a checkup a few days after birth since bilirubin levels peak between three to
seven days after birth.
A distinct yellow coloring confirms that a baby has jaundice,
but additional tests are necessary to determine the severity of the jaundice.
Babies who develop jaundice in the first 24 hours of life
should have bilirubin levels measured immediately, either through a skin or
Additional tests may be necessary to see if a baby’s
jaundice is due to an underlying condition. This may include testing your baby
for their complete blood count (CBC), testing for their blood type, and testing
for Rhesus factor (Rh) incompatibility, which is also known as a Coombs test.
Is Newborn Jaundice Treated?
Mild jaundice will usually resolve on its own as a baby’s
liver begins to mature. Frequent feedings (between eight to 12 times a day) will
help babies pass bilirubin through their bodies.
More severe jaundice may require other treatments.
Phototherapy is a common and highly effective method of treatment that uses
light to break down bilirubin in your baby’s body. In phototherapy, your baby
will be placed on a special bed under a blue spectrum light and be wearing only
a diaper and special protective goggles. A fiber-optic blanket may also be
placed underneath your baby.
In very severe cases, an exchange transfusion may be
necessary. In an exchange transfusion, a baby receives small amounts of blood
from a donor or a blood bank. This replaces the baby’s damaged blood with
healthy red blood cells. This also increases the baby’s red blood cell count
and reduces bilirubin levels.
Newborn Jaundice Be Prevented?
There’s no real way to prevent newborn jaundice. During
pregnancy, you can have your blood type and your baby’s blood type tested to
rule out the possibility of blood type incompatibility that can lead to newborn
jaundice. If your baby does have jaundice, there are ways you can prevent it
from becoming more severe.
- Make sure your baby is getting enough nutrition
through breast milk. Feeding your baby eight to 12 times a day for the first
several days ensures that your baby isn’t dehydrated, which helps bilirubin
pass through their body more quickly.
- If you’re unable to breastfeed and choose to feed
your baby formula, give your baby 1 to 2 ounces of formula every two to three
hours for the first week.
Carefully monitor your baby the first five days of life for
the symptoms of jaundice, such as yellowing of the skin and eyes. If you notice
that your baby has the symptoms of jaundice, call your doctor immediately.