A common condition that affects a majority of newborns across the world, jaundice also known as hyperbilirubinemia refers to the yellow colored discoloration that affects a baby’s skin and eyes. This is caused by the presence of high amounts of bilirubin, a yellow substance formed by breakdown of the red blood cells in the blood of the infant. Ideally bilirubin is filtered out by the liver and passed out through stools.
However babies have higher mass of red blood cells in the body along with an immature liver which can make it difficult for them to process and excrete the excess bilirubin present in the body. This in turn leads to the characteristic yellowish tinge in the eyes and the skin of a jaundiced newborn.
Types of Newborn Jaundice
Jaundice in infants is fairly normal and as their liver matures, it is easier for them to secrete the bilirubin. Moreover the excess red blood cells in the body also diminish and the jaundice usually subsides within two to three weeks. Other than physiological jaundice there is also premature jaundice which affects premature babies who are unable to deal with the high bilirubin levels because their body is incapable of handling it. In fact an estimated eight percent of premature babies suffer from this problem.
Breastfeeding jaundice is a type of infant jaundice that affects breastfeeding babies who are unable to derive the benefits of breast milk either due to low milk supply or a component in breast milk itself which causes higher bilirubin levels.
While these cases of newborn jaundice are usually resolved on their own in two weeks or even less, in certain cases the jaundice may last for more than two weeks. This is known as prolonged jaundice and could be a sign of some internal problem including a liver malfunction, abnormality in red blood cells in the baby’s body, infection in the blood or hemorrhage.
An incompatibility in the child’s and mother’s blood can also lead to jaundice in newborns. In certain rare cases, genetic problems and conditions such as Gilbert’s Syndrome or tyrosinaemia or certain hormone deficiencies can cause prolonged newborn jaundice.
Complications of Jaundice in Newborns
While normal jaundice is harmless and does not require any medical intervention, it is essential to treat prolonged jaundice else it can cause brain damage since bilirubin contains toxic elements that might harm your brain, in some cases causing permanent brain damage.
If you find your jaundiced child displaying symptoms such as high pitched crying, arching neck and body backwards, developing fever and vomiting, then it is a good idea to consult a pediatrician and provide treatment for prolonged jaundice.
Symptoms of Infant Jaundice
One of the most common signs of jaundice is the yellowing of the skin followed by the yellowish tinge appearing in eyes. Press your baby’s forehead to check if there is indeed a yellowish tinge will help in ascertaining the problem. After some time you can find the yellow discoloration in the baby’s eyes and even in the pink skin inside the baby’s mouth.
If the bilirubin in the blood rises the yellowish tinge spreads to the other body parts as well. The jaundice can make a child sleepy and often infants do not feed very well when suffering from this problem. Chalky white stool and dark urine are some of the other signs of jaundice in newborns.
For severe jaundice, watch out for signs such as high pitching wailing and crying, listlessness, difficulty in waking up, poor feeding and no weight gain. These can indicate a more complex problem for which immediate medical treatment should be provided.
How to Treat Jaundice in Babies
The treatment for the jaundice depends on the type of jaundice the baby is affected with. If it is normal mild jaundice that the baby is suffering from, then there is no need for any medical treatment. However for severe cases of jaundice the doctor may recommend phototherapy in which blue green spectrum is emitted which can change the structure of bilirubin molecules. In certain extremely rare cases where other treatment measures fail to work, the doctor may opt for blood transfusion exchange.
If the jaundice is caused by the difference in the blood type of the mother and the child, which causes production of antibodies that break down the cells and cause jaundice, then transfusion of immunoglobulins that reduce the antibodies in the blood can be used as a treatment measure.
When the jaundice is caused by breastfeeding, then the solution does not lie in stopping the breastfeeding. Instead frequent, unrestricted breastfeeding will allow more bowel movements and increase the stools which can help in the elimination of bilirubin from the body. This is because breast milk contains laxatives that help in elimination of stools. Moreover, the breast milk helps in preventing dehydration and allows the baby to gain weight constantly.
Remember that a newborn should be fed at least eight to twelve times a day. If you are providing formula food, then around two ounces of formula after regular intervals of two hours is necessary for the baby. Do not feed the baby sugar water as the excess glucose can only fill the baby’s tummy without providing any nutrition.
Sometime jaundiced babies find it difficult to breastfeed. In such a case the doctor may recommend supplemental feeding of formula milk. In addition to this, consulting a lactation specialist can help in resolving the problem related to breastfeeding during jaundice.
In majority of the cases jaundice in newborns is hardly a cause for concern. However, parents especially the first time parents often tend to panic when they realize that their child is affected with jaundice. However instead of worrying, remain calm, continue to breastfeed the baby regularly and watch out for any signs of severe jaundice.
In some babies the jaundice can last for a day or two while for others it can last a week. If the jaundice persists for more than ten days and it is accompanied by other symptoms of severe jaundice then consult a doctor as soon as possible and seek medical aid.