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Jaundice in babies, also known as newborn jaundice, is a situation where your baby experiences a yellowing of the skin and in the whites of their eyes. It can be a discomforting experience for most parents, and you are likely to freak out when you notice it. But, for the most part, it is not a disastrous illness; it is quite common and should go away on its own within two to three weeks except where there are underlying conditions at play.
What is jaundice?
Jaundice is also known as icterus. Essentially, it describes a situation where the mucous membranes, whites of the eyes (also known as the sclera), and the skin take on a yellowish colouration. This yellowish tinge could also extend to body fluids.
People of all ages could come under this condition, but in babies, there is an abnormally high level of bilirubin. Bilirubin is the pigment, usually yellow, that is produced when red blood cells are broken down in the body.
What causes jaundice in babies?
Jaundice in babies is caused by a failure in the proper processing of bilirubin by the liver. However, there are underlying conditions that could be the cause, especially when it lasts beyond three weeks.
When the liver is done processing bilirubin in adults and babies of older age, it is passed through the body’s intestinal tract. However, this could be difficult for newborns as the baby’s liver is yet to be fully developed.
You must know that in most cases, as the baby’s body and organs develop and its liver is built, a case of jaundice will go away on its own, especially since the bilirubin is now being more properly processed.
These are some of the factors that put your newborn baby at higher risk of developing jaundice:
- Where your baby is born before 37 weeks gestation.
- Internal bleeding or bruises sustained at birth.
- Lack of sufficient breast milk or another baby formula. This could be due to the baby’s failure to properly feed or because the mother is yet to produce breast milk.
- Where the baby has a blood type that is not compatible with the blood type of its mother, the effect of this usually is that the baby is likely to develop antibodies that may destroy their red blood cells. This then causes a spike in bilirubin levels.
- A deficiency in enzymes.
- A problem with its liver.
- Abnormality in red blood cells.
- Some infections could also cause jaundice in babies.
Please note that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that all babies should be checked for jaundice upon birth before they leave the hospital. This procedure should be repeated when the baby is 3 to 5 days old.
The bilirubin levels in your baby would usually peak from 3 to 7 days after it is born.
Within 2 and 4 days, after your baby is born, you may notice a yellowish discolouration of your baby’s skin and eyes. This is usually the first sign of newborn jaundice. This discolouration of the skin normally would start in the face before spreading to its entire body.
Also, if you press your finger lightly against your baby’s skin and notice that the area of skin touched turns yellow, then chances are your baby has developed newborn jaundice.
What you should do?
As we’ve said before, most cases of jaundice will go away on their own without requiring treatment. But there are cases where your baby’s case of jaundice points to an underlying medical condition.
When a case of jaundice is severe and is untreated, it could increase the possibility of bilirubin getting to the brain and causing significant brain damage. Your baby could be at risk of cerebral palsy or deafness.
We have listed some signs that you should look out for. Reach out to your doctor as soon as you notice them:
– Where your baby’s body temperature increases. If it develops a fever that is above 100°F (38°C).
– If you observe that the jaundice is spreading or gets more intense, especially where it lasts beyond three weeks.
– When the yellowish colouration appears to be deeper and more intense.
– Where your baby develops problems with feeding and is always crying in unusually high-pitched tones.
It is advised that babies are checked for newborn jaundice before being discharged from the hospital after birth, usually within the first 72 hours.
It is also important for mothers to return to the hospital within seven days after birth to have the baby checked again for an abnormal increase in bilirubin levels. This is because it is within those 3 to 7 days after birth that bilirubin levels in your baby will peak.
As is mostly the case, when a yellowish colouration is noticed on your baby’s skin, that usually indicates a case of newborn jaundice. But, sometimes, doctors will advise that some additional tests are carried out to determine how severe the case of jaundice is.
If and when jaundice is noticed within the first 24 hours, a blood test or skin test would be carried out to determine bilirubin levels in the baby.
The hospital may carry out a Coombs test which is used to check if there has been an increase in the breakdown of red blood cells.
There could also be an additional test for blood type, CBC (complete blood count) and Rhesus factor incompatibility. These are all aimed at determining whether the jaundice is due to an underlying condition.
For mild cases of jaundice, which usually, in most cases, will pass on its own as the baby’s liver begins to develop, feeding your baby between 8 to 12 times a day will help give it adequate nutrition.
Where the jaundice is severe, then some other forms of treatment are used. One of them is phototherapy. This is a treatment where light is used to ensure that the bilirubin in your baby’s body is broken down.
If the jaundice is more severe than that, then the doctor will likely recommend a transfusion of small amounts of blood. This ensures that the baby receives healthy red blood cells to replace the damaged ones.
How can you prevent jaundice in your baby?
There’s not exactly a way to prevent jaundice in your babies, but for a start, you can ensure you carry out a blood test during pregnancy.
If your new born baby develops jaundice right after the birth, you can prevent it from getting more severe by ensuring your baby gets all the nutrition it needs, especially through frequent (8 – 12 times a day) feeding of breast milk.
The key to overcoming this condition is to be very observant of your baby. Using the information provided above, you must make sure you consult your doctor when you notice what may resemble a severe case of jaundice.
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