What You Should Know About Jaundice in Newborns
Jaundice is a condition that happens to newborns, usually around 2-3 days old. This condition causes a yellow tint to the skin or whites of the eyes. It’s common to see jaundice start out on the face and work its way down to the chest, abdomen, arms, and legs.
If your baby is diagnosed with jaundice, try not to be alarmed - approximately half of all babies born will develop jaundice. Because this condition is so prevalent, your little one will be treated promptly and correctly.
What Causes Jaundice in Newborns?
Jaundice usually occurs when a newborn produces an elevated level of bilirubin, which is also known as physiologic jaundice. Bilirubin is yellow in color, and it’s produced when red blood cells are broken down. Usually, bilirubin is taken out of the bloodstream by the liver - some newborns’ bodies produce more bilirubin than their liver can process.
While a baby is still growing in the womb, the placenta will remove bilirubin from the baby's body. Once a baby is born, their body will have to do this itself, but it can take some time for the liver to start doing its job.
Although less common, severe newborn jaundice can occur if a baby has a condition that elevates the number of red blood cells needing to be replaced in the body. These conditions could be:
- Blood type mismatch between the baby and mother, known as RH incompatibility
- Abnormal blood shapes like sickle cell anemia
- Increased levels of red blood cells
- Lack of enzymes (important proteins)
- Bleeding under the scalp due to difficult delivery, known as cephalohematoma
Treatment For Jaundice
A doctor will likely treat jaundice just by taking a look at your baby’s appearance. However, to be completely sure, the doctor will need to take a blood test to check the level of bilirubin. The level will confirm how severe the jaundice is and what type of treatment to give.
There are a few different types of treatment available for newborns with jaundice:
Light Therapy (phototherapy) - This treatment option is when a baby is placed under a blueish special light. The light will change the structure and shape of bilirubin molecules so that they can exit the body via urine and stool. During the course of the treatment, baby will need to wear only a diaper, along with some protective eye patches.
Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) - Jaundice can be caused by a blood type difference between the baby and mother. If this is the case, the baby will be carrying antibodies from the mother, which contribute to the breakdown of red blood cells in the intravenous transfusion of the immunoglobulin, which is a blood protein that will reduce levels of antibodies, and it can minimize jaundice and decrease the chance of a blood fusion.
Exchange transfusion - This treatment is rarely needed, but it’s an option when severe jaundice won’t respond to other types of treatments. During an exchange transfusion, a baby will need repeated withdrawal of blood to dilute the bilirubin and maternity antibodies. Once that is finished, the blood will be transferred back into the body. This procedure is typically performed at a newborn intensive care unit.
Can You Prevent Jaundice in Newborns?
There’s no way to prevent newborn jaundice. The only thing that you can do is get your blood type tested during pregnancy. Once you give birth, your baby’s blood type will be tested to rule out any possibility of severe jaundice before it happens.
While you can’t prevent jaundice, you can prevent or reduce your baby’s risk of mild jaundice turning severe by:
- If breastfeeding, ensuring your baby is getting enough breast milk to make sure he or she doesn’t become dehydrated, as this can help bilirubin leave the body faster.
- If you don’t breastfeed, give your baby 1-2 ounces of formula every 2-3 hours during the first week. Keep in mind preterm babies may take a smaller amount.
- Monitor your baby and contact the pediatrician if new symptoms develop
Have you or someone you know had a baby with jaundice? Let us know!