Infant jaundice is a yellow discoloration in a newborn baby’s skin, body tissues, fluids and eyes. Infant jaundice occurs because the baby’s blood contains an excess of bilirubin. When red blood cells break down in the body, the body produces bilirubin. Bilirubin is processed by the liver, recycled, and eliminated in the baby’s stool.
Jaundice is common in newborns. This is because all newborn babies are born with more red blood cells than they need. These extra red blood cells break down, releasing bilirubin into the blood.
Feeding (especially breastfeeding) your baby often in the first hours and days after birth helps reduce the risk of jaundice. Your baby will pass more stool, and the milk gives your baby’s liver the energy it needs to process the bilirubin. Infants who are not feeding well reabsorb excess bilirubin from their gut. This is the most common reason for jaundice in newborns.
Some other factors that may contribute to jaundice are prematurity, an infection, metabolic imbalances, or other conditions that make red blood cells easy to break down. Liver, intestinal, or gut problems can cause the body to get rid of bilirubin more slowly than usual, which can lead to jaundice.
Most jaundice is not harmful to your baby. It usually shows up during the baby’s first three to five days of life. Then it disappears as the baby’s body learns to deal with bilirubin. It’s uncommon for babies to have such high levels of bilirubin that they’re at risk; however, in some situations high levels can affect a baby’s brain.
A health-care professional will watch your baby’s bilirubin levels in the hospital to make sure they aren’t too high. Special lights to (phototherapy) may be if baby’s bilirubin levels are higher than normal.
Call your doctor if your baby shows any of the following symptoms:
- Baby refuses feeding.
- Baby is sleepy all the time.
- Baby has lost a significant amount of weight (more than ten per cent of their weight at birth.
- Baby arms and legs are extremely yellow or orange in colour.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination, often with blood tests, to see how severe your baby’s jaundice is. The doctor can then determine how it should be treated.
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