What is jaundice in newborns?
Sunlight is the best treatment for jaundice. However in the hospital, your baby has several treatment options depending on the severity of the condition.
Jaundice is a common condition affecting many newborns. While it can be a serious condition, it is also easy to treat and cure.
Some babies are born with a yellow tint to their skin, or they develop it over their first hours and days of life. When a naturally occurring chemical called bilirubin overproduces in your baby’s blood, it is called jaundice. Babies of all races and color can have jaundice.
Causes of jaundice in newborns
We all have bilirubin in our blood that our liver usually filters out. When the baby is in the womb, the mother’s liver filters the baby’s blood. It can take a few days for your baby’s liver to become efficient at filtering blood, leading to a buildup of bilirubin.
Who can get jaundice?
All newborns are susceptible to jaundice. Breastfed babies who aren’t getting enough milk are more likely to have high bilirubin levels than babies who get enough breast milk or formula.
If you are breastfeeding and concerned about your baby’s jaundice, you can nurse on demand and then supplement with formula until your baby’s jaundice is managed.
Similarly, premature babies are more likely to have jaundice since their bodies have not developed enough to filter blood through the liver.
Babies with darker skin are at risk for their jaundice going undetected for longer since yellowing of the skin is more difficult to see. In this case, check your baby’s eyes and gums for signs of yellowing and ask for additional testing if you have concerns.
How do you know if your newborn has jaundice?
Yellowing of the skin and eyes is the most obvious sign of jaundice. Your baby will have testing done soon after birth to determine if their bilirubin is within a normal range.
Once you go home, it is important to continue monitoring for signs of jaundice in your baby. Additional signs you can look for include:
- Abnormal behavior – especially tiredness or inability to wake your baby
- Dehydration – no wet diapers within an 8-hour period or very dark urine
- Temperature – unusually high or low temperature
- Worsening condition – If your baby’s skin begins to grow more yellow or the yellowing spreads, contact your baby’s doctor immediately.
Diagnosing jaundice in newborns
First, a light will be placed on your baby’s head to get an estimation of bilirubin levels that indicate jaundice. If levels are high, a blood test will be ordered for more accurate results.
Your pediatrician will compare levels to your baby’s age and consider other factors like concurrent medical conditions.
Treatments for jaundice in newborns
Sunlight is the best treatment for jaundice. In the hospital, your baby has several treatment options depending on the severity of the condition:
- Phototherapy – This is a special light that helps your baby’s body process bilirubin better. He or she will wear only a diaper and special eye protection so that almost all the skin is exposed to the light.
- Exchange transfusion – If levels are still high after phototherapy, a special blood transfusion called an exchange transfusion may be needed. An exchange transfusion replaces your baby’s blood in small amounts to remove the blood with high levels of bilirubin.
- Intravenous immunoglobulin – Having a baby with a different blood type than your own means a higher risk of jaundice. This treatment is similar to a vaccine and may lessen the risk of needing a transfusion.
Risks associated with treatments for jaundice in newborns
There are always potential side effects with any medication or treatment. However, jaundice can worsen quickly if left untreated and may cause brain damage.
Your pediatrician may ask to see you one to two days after you are released from the hospital to ensure your baby is healthy. Jaundice is one of the main reasons for this initial follow up appointment.
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Medically Reviewed on 2/9/2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “What are jaundice and kernicterus?”
Kids Health: “Jaundice in Newborns.”
Medline Plus: “Newborn Jaundice.”
Healthy Children: “Jaundice in newborns: Parent FAQs.”
March of Dimes: “Newborn Jaundice.”