Jaundice in Newborns: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

Jaundice is a condition that causes a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes and can affect newborns. It is caused by a build-up of bilirubin in the blood, and can cause the skin and whites of the eyes to turn yellow. In most cases, jaundice is mild and clears up without treatment. However, in some cases it can be more serious and require medical attention. In this blog post, we will discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatments for jaundice in newborns.

Most infants who are born between 35 weeks’ gestation and full term do not need any treatment for jaundice. Rare cases where an unusually high level of bilirubin is present places a newborn at risk.

Symptoms of Jaundice 

The telltale symptom of jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes. However, jaundice can also cause a orange discoloration of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. In some cases, jaundice may cause fever, diarrhea, or vomiting. If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to contact your pediatrician right away. 

There are several ways to check whether or not an infant has jaundice. One way is to press gently on the infant’s forehead or nose. If the skin looks yellow where you pressed, it is likely that the infant has mild jaundice. Another way to check for jaundice is to look at the infant’s eyes. If the whites of the eyes look yellow, this is a sign of jaundice. Finally, you can check the infant’s mucous membranes. If the mucous membranes are yellow, this is another sign that the infant has jaundice. If your baby doesn’t have any of these signs, it’s unlikely that he or she has jaundice.

When should I see a doctor about jaundice?

In most hospitals they will examine your baby for jaundice before you leave and follow the appropriate treatments or follow up check ups as necessary. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that newborns be examined for jaundice during routine medical checks and at least every eight to 12 hours while in the hospital. If your baby is discharged earlier than 72 hours after birth, make a follow-up appointment to look for jaundice within two days of discharge.Newborn Jaundice

If any of these symptoms show up you should call your doctor:

  • Your baby’s skin becomes more yellow
  • The skin on your baby’s the abdomen, arms or legs looks yellow
  • The whites of your baby’s eyes look yellow
  • Your baby seems listless or sick or is difficult to awaken
  • Your baby isn’t gaining weight or is feeding poorly
  • Your baby makes high-pitched cries
  • Your baby develops any other signs or symptoms that concern you

Causes of Jaundice in Newborns

As mentioned previously, having extra bilirubin is the main cause of jaundice in newborns, and is also the reason for the yellow coloration caused by jaundice. This is part of the cycle of breaking down red blood cells.

Newborns produce more bilirubin than adults do because of greater production and faster breakdown rate of their red blood cells. In adults, the liver filters out excess amounts of bilirubin, but a newborn’s liver isn’t as capable, and sometimes can’t remove it quickly enough which then causes a slight build up of bilirubin and thus jaundice. This is called physiologic jaundice and happens on the 2nd or 3rd day of life typically.

If jaundice is happening earlier or much later than the 2-3 day window it may be an indication that it’s caused by something else. Other conditions that may cause jaundice include internal bleeding, viral or bacterial infection, liver malfunction, enzyme deficiency or an abnormality of the baby’s red blood cells.

Jaundice Risk Factors

There are a few risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing jaundice that can cause complications and those include:

  • Premature birth. Babies born before 38 weeks of pregnancy can have a difficult time processing and eliminating bilirubin. These babies may also feed less, and pass fewer bowel movements, so they will be expelling less bilurubin.
  • Blood type. If a mother’s blood type is different from her baby’s, there may be antibodies in the placenta which causes an usuaully rapid red blood cell breakdown.
  • Breast-feeding. In breast-fed babies who are having difficulty nursing, they may not get enough nutrition which increases the risk of developing jaundice. Dehydration is a contributor to jaundice as well as receiving a low caloric intake. Though breast feeding is still a positive thing to do for your baby, but if there’s a struggle latching supplementing with formula can help ensure your baby gets enough calories and fluids.

Preventing Jaundice in Newborns

The best way to prevent infant jaundice is by giving your baby enough nutrients through feeding. Breast-fed babies need 8 – 12 feeds per day, while formula fed usually require 1 to 2 ounces (or 30-60 milliliters) every three hours starting the first week of life.

If your baby is showing signs of jaundice, or you have any concerns whatsoever don’t hesitate to give us a call. Your newborn’s health is our top priority and we have decades of experience evaluating and treating all types of cases of jaundice.