Jaundice in Newborn Babies: What Happens and How to Treat It

Jaundice is a condition that causes an infant's skin and the whites of their eyes to appear yellow. It is common in newborns and can be alarming for parents, but with proper treatment it is usually harmless and disappears shortly after birth. Learn more about what jaundice is, why it happens, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it with this helpful guide.

What is Newborn Jaundice?

Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of the skin, eyes and other tissues caused by an accumulation of a yellow pigment called bilirubin in the blood. It is most common among newborns and can range from mild to severe cases. The condition occurs because a newborn baby's liver may be too small and immature to process the extra bilirubin produced during their first few days after birth.

What Causes Jaundice in Newborns?

Jaundice typically occurs when a newborn's immature liver cannot process and eliminate the excess bilirubin from the bloodstream quickly enough. This can result from an underlying condition, such as an infection or genetic disorder, or simply due to the baby's premature birth. In some cases, jaundice is caused by breaks in the red blood cells of infants (hemolytic jaundice) that then release excessive bilirubin into the baby’s bloodstream.

How is Newborn Jaundice Diagnosed and Treated?

The diagnosis of jaundice in newborns is based on physical examination and measurement of the baby's bilirubin levels. Treatment may include phototherapy (light therapy) either using a special light, or a daylight type lamp placed close to the baby. In some cases, intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) or even an exchange transfusion are necessary. Monitoring the baby's blood levels and adjusting treatment as necessary is essential for successful management of newborn jaundice.

When Should You Call the Doctor About Jaundice?

If your baby's jaundice is not responding to phototherapy or if it progresses after the first 24 hours, you should call your healthcare provider. Be sure to contact the doctor immediately if your baby has any signs of distress such as difficulty feeding, extreme sleepiness and a high pitched cry. Additionally, do not wait for bilirubin levels to reach dangerous levels before getting help as proper medical care is necessary to avoid long-term complications caused by untreated newborn jaundice.

Can Home Treatments Be Used to Reduce Newborn Jaundice?

While home treatments may reduce the severity of newborn jaundice, it is important to note that they shouldn't replace medical treatment. Home remedies should be used in addition to medical treatment and discussed with your doctor first. Possible home remedies include increasing fluids, sunbathing, frequent feeds or swaddling a baby in natural fibers like cotton or linen cloth.

Further resources to read

Infant jaundice - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic

Jaundice in Newborns (for Parents) - Nemours KidsHealth

Newborn jaundice - NHS (www.nhs.uk)

Jaundice in Newborns: Parent FAQs - HealthyChildren.org

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