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What parents need to know about jaundice and newborns

These days, with a normal, uncomplicated delivery, mom and baby leave the hospital within a day or two of the birth. As a pediatrician, there are lots of reasons I like to see newborns within a few days of birth at the office — meet the new baby, check on weight gain, see how the baby is eating and double check immunizations. Another important reason is to check the baby for jaundice.

What is jaundice?

The word jaundice comes from the French “jaune,” meaning yellow. When a baby has jaundice, their skin and the white part of their eyes have a yellowish tinge. The color usually shows up first on a baby’s face and chest within several days after birth. Jaundice is a common condition, especially in babies born before 38 weeks. Most cases of jaundice are not harmful, and will disappear on their own, but it’s important to see your pediatrician, as jaundice typically peaks on the third or fourth day after birth.

Jaundice occurs when a baby’s liver isn’t mature enough to get rid of bilirubin in the bloodstream. Bilirubin is made when the body breaks down old blood cells. In utero, it leaves a fetus’ body through the umbilical cord. But after birth, a baby gets rid of bilirubin through the digestive system.

Most cases of jaundice are due to this reason, but in rare cases, jaundice can be caused by more serious issues such as an infection or digestive problems. Your pediatrician will help determine the cause of your baby’s jaundice. This is important, since if jaundice is left untreated, high levels of bilirubin can be harmful to a baby’s brain. Diagnosing and treating jaundice can help prevent potential harm.

What to do about jaundice

If your baby is jaundiced, a pediatrician will do a physical exam and a blood test. For most newborns, no treatment is necessary, and jaundice will peak within a few days and then go away on its own. You pediatrician’s recommendations may include using indirect, natural sunlight as a treatment for a mild case of jaundice. It is important to be sure your baby gets enough to eat, as peeing and pooping are how the body rids itself of bilirubin. Feeding your baby regularly (8-12 times a day if breastfeeding, or 6-10 feedings by bottle) can help.

For more severe cases, jaundice is treated with phototherapy — putting baby under a special fluorescent light. Don’t try to treat your baby yourself by putting him or her in the sun or near a window — babies should be treated with special lights in controlled surroundings under the care of a pediatrician, who will also monitor your baby through continued blood tests to be sure the treatment is working well.

If your baby appears jaundiced, or if you have any questions or concerns, be sure to call your pediatrician right away.