What Expecting Parents Need To Know About Jaundice

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infant jaundice
Heather Arnett, MD

Jaundice – from the French word for yellow – tints many newborns for their first few days. About 60 percent of newborn babies develop jaundice, but managing it is important because it can cause long-term health problems in rare cases.

In the Q&A below, Heather Arnett, MD, a general pediatrician with UH Rainbow KidsFirst Pediatrics, answers all you need to know about this common and usually mild condition.

Q. What causes jaundice?

A. Excess bilirubin, a normal byproduct of red blood cell breakdown, can turn your baby’s skin yellow. Newborns have extra bilirubin because their immature livers take a little longer to process this substance.

Q. Which babies face the highest risk?

A. Jaundice is most common among premature babies, babies who are not getting enough breast milk due to breastfeeding problems and those who were bruised during birth.

Q. Is jaundice dangerous?

A. Jaundice usually goes away on its own within two weeks after birth without treatment. But bilirubin levels that rise too high can cause brain damage, so your baby should see a nurse or doctor between three and five days after delivery to be checked for jaundice.

Q. How is jaundice treated?

A. Increasing feedings usually brings down mildly elevated bilirubin. Treatment to bring down bilirubin levels could also include phototherapy, where your baby’s bare skin is exposed to special lights or a phototherapy blanket.

Q. How can you spot jaundice?

A. Jaundice typically peaks between the third and fifth day after birth. A doctor or nurse can check your baby’s bilirubin levels with a blood test. Call your doctor right away if your baby has jaundice that turns a darker yellow; if it spreads to the arms, legs, abdomen or eyes; or if your baby with jaundice is hard to wake or not feeding well.

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