When bringing home your newborn bundle of joy from the hospital, you might be wondering why their skin appears yellow. This is newborn jaundice, a common condition found in infants.
Jaundice is caused by a chemical called bilirubin, which produces a yellow discoloration when it is deposited in the skin and eyes. This discoloration is usually harmless and typically disappears within two weeks.
Almost all newborns have an elevated bilirubin level shortly after birth. Bilirubin is produced from the breakdown of hemoglobin found in your baby’s red blood cells. As your baby is adjusting to breathing air outside of the womb for the very first time, their red blood cells will undergo many changes, with bilirubin being produced as a byproduct.
The bilirubin level will naturally peak around day 3-5 after birth. Your baby will get rid of bilirubin through their stools. Babies that feed well will also do better at clearing their bilirubin.
In severe cases, your baby may require treatment for jaundice. Some common risk factors that increase a baby’s risk of developing more severe jaundice include:
- Having a sibling with severe jaundice
- Born at 35-36 weeks gestation
- Mismatching blood types between baby and mommy
- East Asian ethnicity
- Bleeding or bruising from birth trauma
- Poor feeding and excessive weight loss after birth
While in the hospital and during your first newborn visit, your doctor will monitor your baby’s bilirubin level. If the bilirubin level becomes too high, it may lead to a condition called kernicterus, which can result in hearing loss and other developmental problems.
If your baby’s bilirubin level is above a certain threshold, your baby may require a special kind of treatment called phototherapy. Phototherapy uses light rays to help convert the bilirubin in your baby’s body into a form that’s easier to get rid of.
For milder forms of jaundice, your baby may benefit from indirect sunlight exposure, such as placing them near a tinted window. If you are exclusively breastfeeding your child, your doctor may also recommend supplementing with formula in addition to breastfeeding until your baby’s jaundice improves.
Seeing a child feeding well and gaining weight is a very reassuring sign that your baby’s jaundice is improving.
If you are concerned that you baby has the symptoms of jaundice, call your doctor immediately.