Jaundice is a normal process after birth, caused by bilirubin in the blood. When the baby was inside mom, it needed extra red blood cells in order to get enough oxygen. Now that the baby is born, these extra red blood cells break down into bilirubin, which gives a yellow appearance to the baby's skin. The yellow color usually becomes noticeable two or three days after birth, starting in the face and moving down the body to the chest, abdomen, arms and legs.
Typically the yellow color will disappear on its own without treatment. The bilirubin leaves the baby's body through the stool, so if the baby is eating well and is having wet and dirty diapers, jaundice probably won't cause any problems.
However, if bilirubin builds up to an extremely high level, it can make the baby sick or even cause severe complications. This can either mean the body is producing too much bilirubin, or the baby's liver, which is not yet mature, is having difficulty breaking it down quickly enough. Although not common, there are also cases where a difference in mom's and baby's blood types can cause jaundice.
Watch your baby's skin color, eating and sleeping habits closely during the first several days after birth.
Contact your doctor if the baby has the following symptoms:
- Yellow color develops within the first 24 hours.
- Yellow color is severe or is present in the arms and legs. To check this, gently press a finger on the baby's arm or leg, and look at the color of the skin when you first lift your finger. The spot should appear white; if it is yellow, jaundice is present. When checking this color, it is best to use natural light or white fluorescent light.
- Whites of the eyes become yellow.
- Baby's skin appears "suntanned."
- Baby is very sleepy and loses interest in eating.
The doctor may order a bilirubin blood test. If the baby has a normal bilirubin level and the skin is still yellow, you can help the bilirubin leave the baby's body more quickly by placing baby next to a sunny window dressed only in a diaper. The sunlight works to break down the bilirubin similar to the bili blanket discussed below. You may need to adjust the room temperature to keep the baby comfortable.
If the bilirubin blood test is abnormal, the doctor may order phototheraphy using a bili blanket or bilirubin lights in the hospital or at home. MidMichigan Home Care features in-home phototherapy services. To learn more, call MidMichigan Home Care at (989) 633-0733 or toll free (800) 862-7721.
If the bilirubin level gets very high, the doctor may want the baby to be hospitalized for close observation.