Babies & Jaundice

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That yellow tint to your newborn’s skin looks weird, but it’s actually a very manageable condition.

Your little one’s here, but what’s with that yellow tinge on his skin? Don’t worry, it’s normal. Lots of babies have jaundice in the first one to two weeks of life, and although it sometimes requires treatment, it often goes away on its own.

Jaundice Defined

Jaundice is the elevated level of bilirubin in the blood.

“Babies have a lot of red blood cell turnover,” says Ronna Schneider, M.D., of Suburban Pediatrics. “Bilirubin is a product of the breakdown of those red blood cells.”

Schneider says enzymes in the liver are in charge of breaking down bilirubin, but not very effectively in the first few weeks of life, so if the bilirubin builds up, Baby has what doctors call “physiological jaundice.”

There are several other types of jaundice too, though. Jaundice of prematurity affects preemies, who are even less able to process bilirubin. Breastfeeding jaundice can happen if a baby isn’t getting enough breast milk, whether he’s experiencing latching difficulties or Mom’s milk isn’t in yet.

“It’s really important for moms to be ready for breastfeeding,” says Schneider, “and to recognize signs of poor latching on,” she adds. Less common is breast milk jaundice, in which substances in Mom’s milk cause bilirubin levels to rise. Fortunately, breast milk jaundice is common among babies who are breast-fed exclusively and not necessarily a cause for concern.

Your doctor may recommend supplemental feeding for a few days in order to help bring down your baby’s bilirubin levels.

A rare, but more serious, form of jaundice stems from an incompatible blood type. Jaundice that develops in the first 24 hours after birth may indicate a more serious condition.

Detection and Treatment

Beyond the obvious symptoms like yellowing skin or yellowing whites of the eyes, Schneider says pediatricians check newborns frequently in their first weeks of life. Baby’s checked at birth, and again three to five days after. If there’s any concern about jaundice, your doctor will perform a blood test to determine the bilirubin level in Baby’s blood.

Most jaundice doesn’t require treatment, but your doctor may recommend phototherapy — exposure to ultraviolet light, which transforms bilirubin into a form that Baby can break down. You may be able to obtain a prescription for a bili-blanket that you can rent for home use, or your doctor may ask you to take your baby to the hospital for treatment.

At home with your baby, the easiest way to check for jaundice is to press your finger to her forehead, nose or chest, and then release your finger while looking for a yellow tint. If she has dark skin, look for yellowing in the whites of her eyes.

Talk to your doctor if you spot any signs of jaundice, and especially if your baby doesn’t want to eat or becomes hard to waken. With a little intervention, your baby will be free and clear in no time!

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