What is Jaundice?

What is Jaundice?Infant jaundice is a fairly common condition that causes a newborn’s skin (and sometimes the whites of the eyes) to appear yellowish. It usually starts in the face and moves down the body. The discolored skin typically shows up around two to four days after birth and subsides within a few weeks.

What causes Jaundice?

Jaundice is caused when bilirubin – a byproduct of the break-down of red blood cells – builds up in the bloodstream. Typically bilirubin is processed by the liver and converted to bile, which aids digestion. However, a newborn’s immature liver and excessive red blood cells may yield too much bilirubin and therefore lead to jaundice.

Other Types of Jaundice

Normal infant jaundice is called physiological jaundice.  As described above, this occurs when red blood cells make too much bilirubin for the liver to break down properly. Premature babies are especially prone to jaundice since their bodies and livers have had less time to develop.

Jaundice can also occur from breastfeeding. One way jaundice may develop is if a baby is not able to secure an adequate amount of milk, either because a mother’s milk is not yet available or due to improper latch. A lactation consultant can help advise on the best course of action for both of these issues. In very rare circumstances it’s the breast milk itself that causes infant jaundice. Some breast milk contains compounds that prevent the excretion of bilirubin through the intestines which causes bilirubin levels to rise.

Another rare type of jaundice called incompatibility jaundice may arise if the mother and baby have different blood types. A mother’s body may form antibodies that attack the newborn’s red blood cells before birth, which in turn elevates bilirubin levels.

Additional causes of jaundice include liver problems, red blood cell problems, internal injuries at birth, an enzyme deficiency or an infection.

Treatment for Jaundice

Most cases of normal infant jaundice resolve themselves within a few weeks after birth and no treatment is necessary. Breastfeeding often is one of the best ways to naturally lower your baby’s bilirubin.

Testing in the hospital will determine if a newborn’s bilirubin count is low enough to avoid treatment. Extra caution is taken with preemies even if there bilirubin levels are not extremely high. In some cases phototherapy may be recommended. The newborn will spend time in a “bili bed” where she will be exposed to blue spectrum light. This is effective in helping the body process bilirubin. In more severe cases a small blood transfusion may be recommended.

Side Effects of Jaundice

If left untreated jaundice can cause serious health concerns including deafness, cerebral palsy or brain damage. It can also be the sign of an infection or thyroid issue. This is why monitoring jaundice and seeking appropriate treatment is crucial to your baby’s health. Even if treatment is not recommended in the hospital, call your doctor if you notice your baby’s skin yellowing or the yellowing becomes worse, your baby is extremely irritable and inconsolable, or your baby has a fever. Unfortunately there is no known prevention method for jaundice but breastfeeding is one of the best ways to combat it early before it reaches a critical level.

Sources: Healthline, Kids Health, and The Mayo Clinic