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Elena Donovan Mauer

Jaundice In Babies

Don’t worry — jaundice is common and easily treatable. We’ve got answers to all your questions.

What is jaundice in babies?

Jaundice is a medical condition that causes your child’s skin and whites of the eyes to appear yellow. It’s caused by an excess of bilirubin, a yellowish substance that’s released into the bloodstream when the body breaks down red blood cells. Normally, the liver processes the bilirubin without problem. But babies’ livers are somewhat immature, and babies may have a lot of red blood cells to break down soon after birth (for example, if they experienced some bruising during the birth process).

“Jaundice creates a lot of concern because it happens when the babies are just a couple of days old,” says Alanna Levine, MD, a pediatrician at Orangetown Pediatric Associates in Tappan, New York. “But the bottom line is that all babies have some degree of jaundice, and it’s easily fixable.”

What are the symptoms of jaundice in babies?

The most common symptom is a noticeable yellow tinge to the skin and whites of the eyes. Other symptoms include weight loss and poor feeding.

One way to informally test for jaundice: Press your finger against baby’s skin. When you take your finger away, does the skin underneath look yellowish, or is it just a lighter shade of baby’s normal color? If the skin looks yellow, your child probably has jaundice.

Are there any tests for jaundice in babies?

A simple blood test can confirm the presence of jaundice and even give you an idea of how severe it is. (The blood test tells your child’s doctor the exact level of bilirubin in the blood.)

Some hospitals routinely screen all babies for jaundice before discharging them from the hospital. Other health care providers order a jaundice test only if they feel one is necessary.

How common is jaundice in babies?

Most newborns develop some degree of jaundice.

How did my baby get jaundice?

Prematurity increases the risk of jaundice because the baby’s liver is not yet fully developed. A blood type incompatibility between mom and baby, such as Rh incompatibility, also increases the risk of jaundice.
Breastfed babies may also appear jaundiced longer than formula-fed babies. Though it’s not known for sure, there’s speculation that substances in breast milk slow down the rate at which the liver breaks down bilirubin.

What’s the best way to treat jaundice in babies?

Mild jaundice may not require any treatment; it typically resolves on its own.

Increasing your baby’s fluid intake may help ease jaundice. “Babies eliminate bilirubin through their poop, so you want to make sure that they're peeing and pooping a lot,” Levine says.

While many old-timers (your mom, your grandma) recommend laying your baby in the sun, “putting your baby in the sunlight is kind of out-of-vogue these days because we're worried about sun exposure and your baby,” Levine says. “You also need more surface area to be exposed to the light to effectively break down bilirubin.”

Light therapy is an effective treatment for jaundice, but rather than sunlight, most health care providers now use biliblankets, special light-emitting blankets that changes the bilirubin so it can be easily excreted by the body. Biliblankets can be used at home.

More severe cases of jaundice may require a brief readmission to the hospital and time under bili lights, special lights that also help break up bilirubin.

Babies with very severe cases of jaundice may require a blood transfusion.

What can I do to prevent my baby from getting jaundice?

You probably can’t prevent jaundice entirely, but you can decrease its severity by feeding your baby frequently.

What do other moms do when their babies have jaundice?

“My baby was born with jaundice and had numerous blood draws in the hospital to check his levels. They weren't in a dangerous range when we left, and he never needed light therapy. When we brought him home, he started to look a lot more yellow, and I freaked out. The on-call nurse said that as long as he was still eating, sleeping and pooping not to worry, but if he became inconsolable or was "guarding his tummy" or not doing any of the above, then to bring him to the ER. We had a doctor's appointment the next day, and his levels were elevated, but still not in a dangerous range. The doctor said that if his levels get to 16, then we'll admit him for light therapy, but jaundice won't start causing brain damage until about 25 or 30. He’s now eight days old and looking much less yellow. He also has had much wetter diapers, so I'm guessing his system is flushing out the extra bilirubin.”

“My son had jaundice, and his levels were pretty high, so they had him on the quad bilirubin lights, and his levels normalized after about two days. When he went home, the pediatrician said he was still slightly jaundiced, but said that his levels were normal and that exposing him to natural sunlight can help.”

“Our daughter had high bilirubin right off the bat, so it was daily blood draws. They were low enough at four days that we were discharged from the hospital without treatment (except direction to expose her chest to indirect sunlight), but when they continued to increase at seven days, we were prescribed a biliblanket, which is a light-emitting blanket we could use at home. After four days, her levels went down, and we stopped using it. "Lucky" us, she also developed breast milk jaundice (her bilirubin went up again at her one-month appointment), so I increased the indirect sunlight again, and thankfully, it was back down (at her two-month appointment). My pediatrician is still amazed that my daughter doesn’t look as jaundiced as her blood levels indicate. Her skin looks fine!”

Are there any other resources for jaundice in babies?

American Academy of Pediatrics’

The Bump expert: Alanna Levine, MD, pediatrician at Orangetown Pediatric Associates in Tappan, New York

PHOTO: Dina Giangregorio