The Truth About Newborn Jaundice

Many new parents panic when their infant’s skin develops a yellow tinge and they are informed that the baby has jaundice. However, newborn jaundice is very common and actually occurs in about 60% of full-term infants. Since newborn jaundice is so common, it is surprising that so many parents are unaware of why it occurs and how to handle it. With care and attention, newborn jaundice doesn’t have to be a big problem.

Why Does It Happen? 

For healthy infants, jaundice is quite different than it is in adults. Adults get jaundice when they are dealing with a more serious health concern, but this isn’t necessarily the case with newborn infants. Newborn jaundice arises due to an excess of bilrubin. This chemical is naturally formed by the process of breaking down red blood cells. Since infants have extra oxygen-rich red blood cells in their systems, their livers are often incapable of keeping up, which causes the jaundice.

In most cases, the baby’s skin will turn yellow around the head and neck before spreading downward. Only in severe cases does the yellow tinge spread all the way to the legs and the toes. However, even these more severe cases are unlikely to cause lasting damage to the baby. Typically, the yellow coloring appears when the baby is two to three days old and disappears within a week or two.

Different Types of Jaundice

The type of newborn jaundice described above is known as physiological or normal jaundice, but there are several other types of jaundice that might affect newborns, including the following:

  • Jaundice of prematurity. Since premature babies are even less equipped to handle bilrubin in their system, they are even more likely to develop jaundice.
  • Breast milk jaundice. Occasionally, breast milk may contain substances that may also cause bilrubin to increase in the baby’s system.
  • Breastfeeding jaundice. On rare occasions, a baby will develop jaundice because the mother’s milk hasn’t come in yet. In addition, this type of jaundice can be caused by a variety of other breastfeeding difficulties.

How Do You Treat It?

In general, jaundice in newborns simply needs to be monitored to make sure that it doesn’t develop into a more serious case. Some doctors will recommend getting heel pricks in order to track the level of bilrubin in the baby’s blood. Occasionally, babies may benefit from phototherapy treatment, which uses UV light to help speed up the process of breaking down bilrubin.

Ultimately, the most important thing for new parents to remember is that newborn jaundice is a normal condition and is no reason to panic.