Jaundice in Newborn Babies

Jaundice in newborn babies

What is Jaundice?
Jaundice is the yellowish discolouration of the skin and eyes. It is caused by raised levels of a chemical called bilirubin in the blood. It is a common condition affecting approximately 60% of all full-term and 80% of pre-term infants. It can occur in babies of any race or colour. Most infants have mild jaundice that is harmless but in rare situations the bilirubin level can become high.

Why is Jaundice common in newborns?
Everyone’s blood contains bilirubin and it is removed by the liver but it takes a few days for a baby’s liver to get better at removing bilirubin.

How can I tell if my baby is Jaundiced?
The skin of a baby with jaundice appears yellow. Jaundice usually appears first in the face and then moves to the chest, abdomen, arms, and legs as the bilirubin level increases.

The whites of the eyes may also be yellow. Jaundice may be more difficult to see in babies with darker skin colour. It is important to report to the midwife if you suspect your baby is jaundiced.

Is Jaundice harmful?
Most infants develop mild jaundice which is harmless and does not require any treatment. If, however, the bilirubin level becomes extremely high, this occurs very rarely, there is a risk of deafness and occasionally brain damage.

How should my baby be checked for Jaundice?
Your baby will be examined for jaundice regularly. A blood or skin test is usually performed to check the bilirubin level. A test is always needed if jaundice develops before the baby is 24 hours old. Whether a test is needed after that depends on the baby’s age, the amount of jaundice, baby’s condition and if the baby has other risk factors that make jaundice more likely.

Does breastfeeding affect Jaundice?
Jaundice is more common in babies who are breastfed than babies who are formula fed. If you are breastfeeding, you should breastfeed your baby at least 8 to 12 times a day for the first few days. This will help you produce enough milk and will help to keep the baby’s bilirubin level down. If you are having difficulties or need help with breastfeeding, ask your midwife or nurse. Breast milk is the ideal food for your baby.

When should my newborn get checked after leaving the hospital?
Your baby will be seen by the public health nurse/community midwife the day following your discharge. The timing of this visit may vary depending on the baby’s needs.

Which babies require more attention for jaundice?
Some babies have a greater risk for raised levels of bilirubin including:
1. Early birth (more than 2 weeks before the due date).
2. Jaundice in the first 24 hours after birth.
3. Breastfeeding that is not going well.
4. A lot of bruising or bleeding under the scalp related to labour and delivery.
5. A parent or brother or sister who had high bilirubin and received phototherapy.
6. Babies with an infection.

When should I call my baby’s doctor?
Call your baby’s doctor if:
1. Your baby is becoming more jaundiced and appears drowsy or is too sleepy to feed.
2. Your baby has fewer wet or dirty nappies.
3. Your baby seems unwell.

How is harmful Jaundice prevented?
Babies with jaundice should be fed every 2 – 3 hours. Most jaundice requires no treatment, however, occasionally phototherapy is necessary. This involves placing your baby into an incubator under special lights to lower the bilirubin level.
Your baby will be undressed except for a nappy and eye shields for protection of the eyes. This treatment can prevent the harmful effects of jaundice.

When does Jaundice go away?
In breastfed infants, jaundice often lasts for more than 2 to 3 weeks. In formula fed infants, most jaundice in gone after two weeks. If your baby is jaundiced for more than 3 weeks, contact your baby’s doctor.

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