Jaundice Babies: what you need to know

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Jaundice Baby in UV lights

Is your baby looking a bit, well, yellow? Or perhaps you hadn’t realised yet but the midwives are throwing around the word jaundice baby and it all sounds very scary.

Take a breath Mumma, today we’re talking about jaundice in newborns. And it’s not always as bad as it sounds.

What is jaundice in newborns?

Jaundice is a medical term used to describe a yellowing of the skin. It can happen in adults but it’s surprisingly common in newborn babies. It’s estimated that around six out of ten newborn babies will have some form of mild jaundice in the first few days of life.

It’s caused by a build-up of a yellow substance called bilirubin in your baby’s red blood cells. Bilirubin is a normal waste product for the body but newborns don’t always do such a great job of processing it. More on that later.

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

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More often than not, the first and only symptom of jaundice in newborns you will notice is a yellow tinge to the skin and the whites of baby’s eyes. Skin discolouration starts on the face, and then progressively spreads down the body if the issue is not resolved. At its worst, the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands will also turn yellow.

In more severe jaundice cases, your baby may be unusually drowsy and have trouble feeding. Occasionally you may also notice light poo and dark wee.

What causes newborn jaundice?

There are a few different causes of jaundice in newborns and some are more serious than others.

The main types are:

Physiological Jaundice: the most common kind. Physiological jaundice is caused by your baby’s liver not being quite mature enough to process the bilirubin level in their red blood cells. This will appear in the first few days of life.

Breast milk Jaundice: Also quite common, this is when a chemical from your breast milk affects your bub’s ability to remove bilirubin. Once again this happens in the first few days of life.

Breastfeeding Jaundice: Not to be confused with breast milk jaundice, breastfeeding jaundice is when your little one becomes dehydrated due to feeding issues.

Delayed Cord Clamping / Delivery Intervention Jaundice: Occasionally delayed clamping can cause your little one to have too many red blood cells. This means that baby’s liver will struggle to process both these extra cells, and the bilirubin levels. Likewise, any bleeding or bruising your baby may obtain during the birthing process can cause the same issue.

Blood Type Incompatibility Jaundice: This one is pretty rare but it means that you and your baby have an incompatible blood type. This will only occur in subsequent pregnancies. This type of jaundice will appear in the first 24 hours after birth.

Biliary Atresia: Another rare cause of jaundice in newborns, is a severe medical condition. For babies born with this illness, the tubes that connect their bile, liver and intestine aren’t working properly. This type of severe jaundice will show up longer after birth, usually 2-8 weeks.

How do I know for sure if my baby has neonatal jaundice?

Jaundice in newborns

First of all, if your medical team haven’t picked up on it already, you must alert them if you think your newborn has any sign of mild jaundice. Luckily, diagnosis is pretty quick and easy.

The first thing they will usually do is check your baby’s skin with a machine called a bilirubinometer. This will give them a more accurate idea if your baby has neonatal jaundice, and how badly.

Following on from this they may decide to do a heel prick blood test to confirm the bilirubin levels in your baby’s red blood cells. Depending on any other relevant details, they may also decide to do a further blood tests or urine samples to rule out any underlying conditions.

Are there any long-term health effects for newborn jaundice?

Generally speaking, no. For most babies, their experience with jaundice will be brief and will have no long-term side effects. If your baby’s bilirubin levels were left unchecked, exceptionally high concentrations in the bloodstream can cause brain damage.

If there are any underlying health issues causing your jaundice baby, these will obviously need to be addressed by a doctor as soon as possible.

How do you treat jaundice in newborns?

Jaundice in Newborns UV Lights

Treatment options depend largely on the cause, and severity of your newborns jaundice.

If their jaundice is physiological or linked to the birth or your breast milk, and your bub is otherwise well, no treatment is generally required. Your baby’s little body just needs a bit of time to catch up and figure out how to do things properly.

Occasionally a course of phototherapy treatment may be recommended. Sounds a bit full-on but really it’s just putting your bub under a special type of blue light. This light helps break down the excess bilirubin levels. Most bubs aren’t phased by it too much at all.

If the jaundice is caused by dehydration, you will need to increase your baby’s feeds. It’s probably a good idea to chat to a midwife or lactation consultant to try and resolve any issues. In the interim, they may recommend some formula top-ups to help fix your baby’s jaundice.

For blood type incompatibility and biliary atresia jaundice, medical treatment is very much required. Your doctors will help guide you through any required procedures.

Treatments other mums experienced

We asked over 500,000 mums on our Facebook page what treatment their babies received if they were born with jaundice and these are some of the things they said …

  • We spent one night at home but he didn’t improve so we were admitted to the paeds ward and he spent the night on the blue light blanket and in the crib – Casey
  • Phototherapy treatment for my first kid as he didn’t drink much milk from me. The second kid was drinking enough milk once every two hours so she recovered quickly- Helen
  • Placed her bassinet in front of the window with the most sunlight – Zeynup
  • My little boy was slightly jaundiced but it disappeared in a couple of weeks – Lauren
  • Double UV light in crib 3 days 3hrly feeds then filtered sunlight at home – Chrissy
  • My daughter had the lights when she was 48 hours old – and then had to return back to the hospital when she was 5 days old for another lot of lights – Amy
  • Park the pram or bassinet in the window and let them soak in the sun – Melissa
  • My daughter was put under lights in a humidie crib for 4 days – June
  • Blue light disco as we called it! – Brooke
  • Big stress on plenty of feeds and short bursts sun exposure. Frequent checks with nurses over number weeks – Abi
  • Nothing at all, nurses just kept an eye on him and it settled on its own over a couple of weeks – Alex
  • We had a billy bed for 4 days, which wasn’t working. We then got moved into an incubator for the blue light therapy for 2 nights. Plenty of fluids, 2 hourly wake ups to feed. Once we left it was as many walks as we could in the sun – Louise

Find out more by reading the 400+ comments about what other mums experienced by clicking the comment number or the date stamp below.

How long does it take for newborn jaundice to go away?

Luckily most babies recover quickly and fully from newborn jaundice. Moreover, jaundice in newborns is routinely checked in the hospital, so the likelihood of anything getting too severe is very slim.

Newborn jaundice generally heals within a week for formula based newborns. In breastfeeding children, the condition may take up to a week or two to recover.

Remember to follow your mum instincts and make sure you raise any concerns with your family health nurse or care team. Otherwise, rest assured you’ll be taking home a healthy, non-yellow baby very soon!

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