Jaundice: What New Parents Need to Know

Jaundice in a newborn appears as yellow skin and sometimes tints the whites of the baby’s eyes.  It is caused by an excess of bilirubin, which is derived from hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying molecule found in red blood cells. Babies have extra red blood cells when they are born, which, in most cases results in some degree of jaundice as these cells are broken down and recycled. Additionally, when a mom is waiting for her milk to arrive, her baby can get mildly dehydrated, which can exacerbate the condition.


Should I be Worried?

As a parent you should not be worried; you should be aware. The hospital staff and your pediatrician are on the lookout for signs of jaundice in the days after your baby is born. Newborn protocols are in place to monitor every baby for worsening jaundice. Your baby will have his bilirubin checked before leaving the hospital, sometimes more than once.  Bilirubin levels are at their highest three to five days following birth, and that’s one of the many reasons we want to see your baby in the office 1-2 days after leaving the hospital.


What Do I Do if My Baby Does Have Jaundice?

In mild cases, there is no cause for concern. But very high levels of bilirubin, if left unchecked, can result in permanent damage to the baby’s brain, called kernicterus. This is why we follow every baby after birth for jaundice, providing intervention when needed. Kernicterus is a thing of the past!

Most jaundice is mild and requires no treatment. Higher bilirubin levels may call for exposure to a special light (called phototherapy), either at the hospital or at home. Your pediatrician may talk to you about supplementing your baby’s diet with donor breastmilk or formula when waiting for your breastmilk to arrive, especially if jaundice and newborn weight loss with dehydration are a concern.  You can help us by calling if your baby experiences any of the following symptoms of jaundice:

  1. Your baby’s skin turns even more yellow after leaving the hospital, especially if the yellow discoloration moves down the body - the lower the jaundice on the body (abdomen or lower) the higher the blood level.  
  2. The skin on the arms, legs and belly turns yellow.
  3. Your baby is jaundiced and more than normally fussy, or lethargic, or not eating well.
  4. Jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and/or skin that returns weeks after it seemed to go away.

The bottom line:  jaundice is very common, and as long as we are monitoring your baby appropriately it should not be a serious health concern.  Call us if you are worried!