How common is jaundice in newborns?
Newborn jaundice is the yellowing of the baby’s skin and eyes. It occurs in more than half of all healthy newborns and up to 80 per cent of babies born early. In most cases, Jaundice is usually harmless.
Symptoms of jaundice
If your baby has jaundice, you will first notice a yellowish tint on your baby’s face. This yellowing may then spread to the rest of the body. Try to examine your baby in natural daylight to determine whether he or she indeed has jaundice.
Causes of jaundice
Newborn babies produce something called bilirubin. Bilirubin is a chemical that shows up as a yellow pigment in the babies’ skin and eyes. Bilirubin is a by-product of the normal breakdown of red blood cells. It is usually processed by the liver before leaving the body in stools. In some newborn babies, bilirubin is produced faster than the liver can process it. Thus, the excess bilirubin accumulates in the baby’s body and causes the skin and eyes to turn yellow.
In certain cases, jaundice may be due to the blood type difference between the mother and baby. When this happens, the baby has antibodies from the mother that break down red blood cells at a rate faster than what’s normal. This can still be treated and is no cause for alarm.
Risks of jaundice
Mild jaundice in babies sometimes goes away on its own. However, if your doctor has determined that your baby has high levels of bilirubin, phototherapy treatment would be administered. Phototherapy should help your baby’s jaundice to go away in no time at all.
In very rare occasions, abnormally high levels of bilirubin can cause brain damage if it passes to the brain. This is known as kernicterus, but it is extremely rare indeed, and affects less than one newborn out of 100, 000.
Treatment options for jaundice
Phototherapy is a safe, non-invasive light treatment that your baby will undergo to help the body get rid of bilirubin. Your baby can undergo phototherapy treatment in the hospital or at home, using conventional phototherapy or fibreoptic phototherapy.
Phototherapy is done by placing the baby under machines with special blue lights or ‘bililights’ that help to break down the excess bilirubin in the skin to a harmless form that can be easily removed by the liver. Treatment in the hospital is usually carried out in the nursery or in the mother’s ward. However, to ensure minimal disruption to your baby’s breastfeeding schedule, similar phototherapy machines used in the hospital can be rented and delivered to your home so that phototherapy treatment can be done at home. Typically, your baby will undergo the phototherapy treatment for two or three days. The bilirubin levels should then decrease to a normal level.
If the more conventional treatments do not work, your baby may require an exchange transfusion of blood, where the baby’s blood is withdrawn in tiny amounts to dilute the bilirubin and maternal antibodies before being transfused back into your baby. This is called exchange blood transfusion and would be carried out in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, or the NICU.