What Causes Jaundice in Newborn Babies?

As a doctor, I can define jaundice as a medical condition with yellowing of the eyes and skin, arising from an excess of the pigment bilirubin. Jaundice is typically caused by obstruction of the bile duct(s), by liver disease, or by excessive breakdown of red blood cells. But as a parent myself, when you’re worried about the health of your infant, the clinical definition doesn’t mean much. What you want to know is: what does this mean for my baby?

Jaundice for the Layperson

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 gets 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. Bilirubin levels are at their highest three to five days following birth, and that’s one of the many things we check in that first newborn visit.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if jaundice is present, but as pediatricians, we have a practiced eye and we can see the signs a bit more easily than new parents just home from the hospital!

What Do I Do if My Baby Does Have Jaundice?

Sometimes we may need to do a skin or blood test to confirm the diagnosis of jaundice. In mild cases, there is no cause for concern. But increasingly higher 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 and provide 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 light (called phototherapy), either at the hospital or at home. Supplementing your baby’s diet with donor breastmilk or formula is another option when waiting for your breastmilk to arrive, especially if jaundice and newborn weight loss with dehydration are a concern. Jaundice is very common (50% of babies born have it) and it’s very treatable.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

As with everything else related to your baby, you should feel comfortable calling us. We know a lot of this is new, and we know you want to do what’s best for your little one. I learned a lot about being a pediatrician by being a parent, so follow your instincts. Please call us 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.

What if I can’t tell?

That’s why we’re here. It can be difficult to tell, and we don’t expect you to diagnose your newborn. We have a standard series of office visits in place to monitor your newborn, but feel free to call us if you need assistance. We’re all parents and we’ve all been in your shoes. We can help!

About the Author:
Dr. Nick Krebs started his medical journey in New York, eventually heading to Boston, finishing up his medical training in Cleveland, and finally returning to his wife’s home state of Colorado. Along the way, he volunteered hours in pediatrics, which would become his first love. Dr. Krebs completed his pediatrics internship and residency at The Children’s Hospital of Colorado and the Denver Health Medical Center. These days, Dr. Nick works with families at Greenwood Pediatrics, fostering long-term relationships and friendships along the way.

Posted: 11/11/2017 7:03:59 PM by Deb Braun | with 0 comments
Filed under: bilirubin, Jaundice, phototherapy, skin, yellow

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