Jaundice is a yellow tint to a newborn's skin and the white part of the eyes. It is a sign that there's too much
bilirubin in the baby's blood. The word for having too much bilirubin in the blood is hyperbilirubinemia (say "hy-per-bil-ih-roo-bih-NEE-mee-uh").
Jaundice usually appears in the first 5 days of life. Many babies have left the hospital by the time jaundice starts. So your doctor may want to do a follow-up exam when your baby is 3 to 5 days old.
Most babies have mild jaundice. It usually gets better or
goes away on its own within a week or two without causing problems. But jaundice should be taken seriously. In rare cases, if the bilirubin level stays high and isn't treated, it can cause brain damage called kernicterus. This can lead to serious lifelong problems.
What causes jaundice in newborns?
because your baby's body has more bilirubin than it can get rid of. Bilirubin
is a yellow substance that's made when the body breaks down old red blood cells. It leaves the body
through urine and stool. When you're pregnant, your body removes bilirubin from
your baby through the
placenta. After birth, your baby's body must get rid
of the bilirubin on its own.
In most cases, babies have what's called physiologic jaundice. It occurs because their organs aren't yet able to get rid of excess bilirubin very well. This type of jaundice usually appears about 24 hours after birth. It gets worse until the third or fourth day, and then it goes away in about a week.
cases, jaundice may be caused by other things, such as an infection, a problem with the
baby's digestive system, or a problem with the mom's and baby's blood types
(Rh incompatibility). Your baby may have one of these
problems if jaundice appears less than a day after birth.
What are the symptoms?
If a newborn has jaundice, his or her skin and the white part of the eyes will look yellow. The
yellow color shows up first in the baby's
face and chest, usually 1 to 5 days after birth.
A baby whose bilirubin level is high may:
Get more yellow.
Be sluggish and not suck well.
Be cranky or jittery.
Arch his or her back.
Have a high-pitched cry.
A high bilirubin level can be dangerous. Make sure to call a doctor right away if your baby has any of these symptoms.
How is jaundice in newborns diagnosed?
doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your health and your baby's health. For example, the doctor might ask if you and your baby have different blood types.
The doctor may place a device against your baby's skin to check your baby's bilirubin level. A blood test for bilirubin may be done to find out if
your baby needs treatment.
More tests may be needed if the doctor
thinks that a health problem is causing too much bilirubin in the blood.
How is it treated?
Your baby will need treatment if the bilirubin level is above the normal range for newborns. He or she will be put under a type of fluorescent light to treat the jaundice. This is called
phototherapy. The skin absorbs the light, which changes
the bilirubin so that the body can more easily get rid of it. The treatment is usually done in a hospital. But babies sometimes are
treated at home.
Don't try to treat jaundice by placing your baby in the sun or near a window. Special lights and controlled surroundings are always needed to treat jaundice safely.
If a health problem caused the jaundice, your
baby may need other treatment. For example, a baby with severe jaundice caused by Rh incompatibility may need a blood transfusion.
How can you help your baby?
If your baby has jaundice, you have an important role to play.
Look closely at your baby's skin 2 times a day to make sure that the color is returning to normal. If your baby has dark skin, look at the white part of the eyes.
Take your baby for any follow-up testing your doctor recommends.
Call the doctor if the yellow color gets
brighter after your baby is 3 days old.
The best thing you can do to reduce jaundice is to make sure that your baby gets enough to eat. That will help your baby's body get rid of the extra bilirubin.
If you are breast-feeding, feed your baby about 8 to 12 times every 24 hours.
If you are feeding your baby from a bottle, stay on your schedule (usually about 6 to 10 feedings every 24 hours).
If you aren't sure that your baby is getting enough milk, ask your doctor, a nurse, or a lactation consultant for help.
This American Academy of Pediatrics website has information for parents about childhood issues, from before the child is born to young adulthood. You'll find information on child growth and development, immunizations, safety, health issues, behavior, and much more.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities
1600 Clifton Road, MS E-87
Atlanta, GA 30333
NCBDDD aims to find the cause of and prevent birth
defects and developmental disabilities. This agency works to help people of all
ages with disabilities live to the fullest. The website has information on
many topics, including genetics, autism, ADHD, fetal alcohol spectrum
disorders, diabetes and pregnancy, blood disorders, and hearing loss.
American Academy of Pediatrics (2004). Management of
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Maheshwari A, Carlo WA (2011). Digestive system disorders. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 600–612. Philadelphia: Saunders.
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