If your new baby’s skin has turned yellow in color, you may be looking at a case of newborn jaundice. This is a really common condition that affects around 60% of all newborn babies, and 80% of preemies.
Is jaundice serious in newborns? In most cases, no. The good news is that jaundice normally clears up on its own in a couple of weeks. And if it does prove a bit stubborn, there are some really effective treatments that can quickly get rid of it.
Occasionally, though, newborn jaundice can be a sign of a more serious underlying health condition. So knowing how to spot jaundice can help make sure your baby gets the treatment they need as soon as possible.
Let’s take a look at the key facts about newborn jaundice: symptoms, causes, and treatment.
What is jaundice in a newborn baby? The key facts
Newborn jaundice symptoms
The symptoms of jaundice in newborns tend to develop around 2–3 days after birth, although it can take a little longer for them to show up in preemies – around 5–7 days.
The most common symptoms are:
- Yellowing of your baby’s skin, starting in their face or head and sometimes spreading down to other parts of their body
- Yellowing of the whites of your baby’s eyes.
Your baby should be examined by your healthcare provider within 72 hours after the birth to detect signs of jaundice. It’s also recommended for them to be examined again at a follow-up appointment around 3-5 days after birth.
You can check your baby for jaundice at home, too, by gently pressing a finger on their skin and looking to see if the area appears more yellow. If your baby’s skin is a darker tone, it can be easier to spot the yellow color if you look at the palms of their hands, the soles of their feet, or inside their mouth.
Other symptoms of newborn jaundice include:
- Dark, yellow urine (which should be clear)
- Pale-colored poop (which should be more yellow or orange)
- Sleepiness or not sleeping at all
- Problems with feeding
If you notice any of these symptoms, get in touch with your healthcare provider, as your baby might need treatment.
What causes jaundice in newborn babies?
Newborn jaundice happens when a yellow-colored chemical called bilirubin builds up in your baby’s blood. This is also called hyperbilirubinemia.
Bilirubin is produced by the red blood cells (the cells that carry oxygen around the body) when they’re broken down. This is happening all the time in your body: old red blood cells breaking down and new ones taking their place. And the bilirubin is normally taken care of by the liver, which processes it and sends it to the intestines, so it can be removed from the body when you poop.
A newborn baby has loads more red blood cells than you do, which means more bilirubin when they break down. The problem is that their liver isn’t quite as on-the-ball as yours is yet – so it doesn’t always do such a great job processing the bilirubin.
The result? The bilirubin hangs around in your baby’s blood, making their skin appear yellow.
How long does it take for jaundice to go away in newborns?
For most babies, newborn jaundice will naturally disappear within about 10-14 days after birth. That’s because their liver is now doing a much better job at getting rid of the bilirubin.
For preemies, jaundice can linger a bit longer – around 3 weeks.
If you’re breastfeeding your baby, you may find that jaundice sticks around for a month or so. Breastfed babies are also at higher risk of developing jaundice in the first place. This may be because of particular substances in breastmilk (which could affect the liver’s ability to deal with the bilirubin), or it may be to do with feeding problems.
It’s important to note, though, that the benefits of breastfeeding are considered to outweigh the risk of getting jaundice. So if you’re devoted to the idea of breastfeeding your baby, don’t be discouraged.
When should I be concerned about my newborn’s jaundice?
If your baby’s jaundice is taking a long time to go away, or if you’re concerned about their symptoms, it’s best to get in touch with your healthcare provider.
In some extremely rare cases, if left untreated, high levels of bilirubin can cause a condition called kernicterus. It happens when the bilirubin enters the baby’s brain, and can lead to brain damage.
Severe jaundice could also be a sign of an underlying health condition, such as:
- A urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Sepsis (a blood infection)
- Biliary atresia (a problem with the bile ducts and gallbladder)
- Enzyme deficiency (enzymes help with essential chemical reactions in your body)
- Rhesus factor disease (where antibodies in your blood attack your baby’s blood cells)
So, although newborn jaundice is harmless for most babies, it’s worth touching base with your healthcare provider if you’re worried. They will be able to test your baby’s bilirubin levels and check for other health issues, so that they can diagnose the right treatment.
How do you get rid of jaundice in newborns?
There are two really effective treatments for newborn jaundice, which help your baby’s body process all that extra bilirubin. Both of the treatments take place in hospital. They are:
Phototherapy. Your baby is undressed (apart from their diaper) and either laid under a special lamp or on top of a blanket containing fiberoptic cables. When the light from the lamp or cables shines on your baby’s skin, it breaks down the bilirubin so it can be processed by the liver more easily. Don’t worry – the light is completely painless!
Exchange transfusion. In this process, your baby’s blood is gradually removed and in its place they receive blood from a donor. With this new blood, your baby gets lots of lovely new red blood cells and at the same time their bilirubin levels are reduced.
If your baby’s jaundice is caused by an underlying health condition, they may also need additional treatment to sort that out.
What can I do to help with newborn jaundice?
Newborn jaundice is a passing phase for most babies, and they’ll soon be back to their natural skin tone. But if you spot any concerning symptoms, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider.
One thing that may help with some cases of jaundice is to make sure your baby is getting plenty of milk. If they’re feeding enough and staying hydrated, their body should find it easier to flush out the excess bilirubin when they poop.
And if you’re having any problems with feeding, reach out to your healthcare provider to see what support is available. Learning to be a mama shouldn’t be something you have to do alone – particularly in these first few crazy days! But keep going: you’re doing so well.
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