First thing to know? It’s very common!
New parents, not surprisingly, worry more than most people. Is the baby healthy, do they have all the appropriate fingers, toes and genitalia? Did they score well on the APGAR? It’s only at that moment that most new parents will take a breath to relax… Then, at the first checkup a few days later, the doctor points out that the baby has a yellowish hue to their skin tone. So what’s that about?
It’s called jaundice and it’s very common in newborns, so the first thing to know is that it’s not a reason to panic.
What is jaundice
Basically, jaundice is an excess of bilirubin in the baby’s blood and is characterized by the yellowing of the skin and the white’s of the eyes. What is bilirubin? It is what’s left when red blood cells break down (a normal process). We all produce this byproduct, which normally goes through the liver and is excreted out through the intestines as bile.
Jaundice occurs when there is too much bilirubin build up for the liver to process and excrete. Why does this happen to newborns? There can be a couple of reasons:
1.Newborns produce more bilirubin than adults because they have a much faster rate of turnover of red blood cells.
2.A newborn’s liver is still developing and it may not be working to full capacity yet.
3.A baby’s intestines might absorb the bilirubin instead of it being excreted through their stools (also known as poop!)
Is jaundice dangerous?
It can be if the levels of bilirubin are high enough and are left untreated. Severe jaundice can affect healthy brain cells and contribute to deafness, cerebral palsy, or other types of brain damage that lead to developmental delays.
How is it diagnosed?
Most babies are checked within a few days of birth for jaundice, as it takes that long to appear. If you are in the hospital for several days, they will likely check it before you are discharged but with an uncomplicated birth and a quick discharge or a home birth, you will not have that benefit, so it’s important to have that early first check with the doctor, postpartum. Jaundice is more likely in cases of premature babies, as their livers are even less likely to have fully developed. Even lower levels of bilirubin are cause for treatment in the case of a preemie!
Jaundice develops as a yellowish hue in the skin tone, starting with the face and spreading downwards to the chest, stomach area and legs. It can be more difficult to notice with babies with darker skin but by pressing on the skin on baby’s nose or forehead, the skin will appear yellow in that spot, if baby has jaundice, when you let go.
If jaundice is suspected, a blood sample can confirm it and measure the level of bilirubin in the baby’s system. A visual look at the yellowing of the skin cannot tell a doctor how much is in their system, so the blood test is essential.
How is jaundice treated?
That depends entirely on the bilirubin levels that the baby has. A mild case could be left for a week or two, with monitoring, to see if the liver catches up and it resolves on its own. More severe cases require treatment using a special light that helps to rid the body of the excess bilirubin—known as phototherapy.
Can jaundice be prevented?
Making sure that your baby is eating enough in the first hours and days after they’re born is the best way to make sure that their body can process the bilirubin, since it is excreted ultimately through their stools. More goes in… more goes out. It’s all pretty logical!
If you’re concerned about whether or not your baby might have jaundice, it’s always best to check in with your doctor. Having a postpartum doula to help you, in hospital or at home, will give you that sense of calm and security you need to deal with any eventualities, like jaundice, that come up.