Do not be alarmed if the whites of your baby’s eyes and their skin turns a slight yellow colour after 3 days. This is a condition called jaundice and is caused because your baby’s liver cannot work fast enough to dispose of a pigment called bilirubin. Premature babies are more likely to suffer from jaundice. Newborn jaundice is caused by high levels of bilirubin in the blood, which gives an infant’s skin and eyeballs a yellowish tinge.
Bilirubin is a byproduct of the normal breakdown of red blood cells. The liver processes bilirubin so that it can be excreted by the body as waste. At birth, a baby’s liver is still developing its ability to process bilirubin. Therefore, bilrubin levels are a little high at birth and jaundice is present to some degree in almost all newborns. This form of jaundice usually appears between the 2nd and 5th days of life and clears by 2 weeks. It usually causes no problems.
Breastfeeding jaundice is seen in 5-10% of newborns. This may occur when breast-fed babies do not take in enough breast milk and rarely requires treatment. Sometimes, however, breastfeeding does need to be interrupted and bottle-feeding substituted for a brief period of time to clear the jaundice.
Jaundice in a newborn is rarely caused by a serious illness.
Treatment is usually not necessary. Keep the baby well-hydrated with breast milk or formula. Encourage frequent bowel movements by feeding frequently. This is because bilirubin is carried out of the body by the intestines in the stools. (Bilirubin is what gives stool their brown color).
Sometimes artificial lights are used on infants whose levels are very high, or in premature infants. These lights work by helping to break down bilirubin in the skin. The infant is placed naked under artificial light in a protected isolette to maintain constant temperature. The eyes are protected from the light.
In the most severe cases of jaundice, an exchange transfusion is required. In this procedure, the baby’s blood is replaced with fresh blood. Recently, promising studies have shown that treating severely jaundiced babies with intravenous immunoglobulin is very effective at reducing the bilirubin levels to safe ranges.
The jaundice usually resolves without treatment within 1 to 2 weeks.