Identifying, treating jaundice in newborns

Caring For Our Kids

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Jaundice is a common condition in newborns which can be concerning, especially for new parents. Babies with jaundice have a yellow coloring of the skin and eyes.

Dr. Katy Stordahl, from East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, talks about the causes of jaundice and what kind of treatment is needed.

What is jaundice and how do you know if your baby has it? 

Jaundice is a yellow color seen in the skin of many newborns. Jaundice happens when a chemical called bilirubin builds up in the baby’s blood.

It can occur in babies of all races, usually appearing in first in the face, then moves to the chest abdomen, arms and legs as the bilirubin level increases. The whites of the eyes may also be yellow.

It can be tougher to detect in babies with a dark skin color. It is very important to take your child to see their doctor within the first week of life, jaundice is one of the things a pediatrician will be looking for.

What causes jaundice? 

Everyone’s blood contains bilirubin, which comes from red blood cells and is removed by the liver.

Before birth, the mother’s liver does the work for the baby. Most babies develop jaundice in the first few days after birth because it takes a few days for the baby’s liver to get better at removing bilirubin.

A baby is more likely to get jaundice if born prematurely, is breastfeeding or has a genetic blood disease.

Is it harmful to the baby? 

Most cases of jaundice are mild and harmless, but in rare cases the bilirubin level can get very high and might cause brain damage.

Again, this is why it’s so important to keep your baby’s doctors’ appointments, and have them seen within the first three to five days after birth. Your pediatrician may want to see your baby sooner if they showed signs of jaundice before leaving the hospital.

What’s the treatment for jaundice? 

Treatment depends on the cause, the bilirubin levels and a baby’s age. Mild jaundice usually goes away on its own in one to two weeks. More serious cases may require treatment with fluids, photo therapy, or in emergency cases a blood transfusion.

Most people may be familiar with photo therapy, where a baby lies under lights. Light therapy blankets may also be used. Sometimes this happens in a hospital setting, but often photo therapy can happen in your home.

At Children’s Hospital, for example, our home health teams will deliver a light therapy kit to your home and teach you how to use it for your baby, then come back to pick it up once treatment is complete.

What if jaundice is not going away? 

Babies with jaundice for longer than two weeks need more testing to check for other issues like infections or problems with the liver. Just stay in communication with your child’s doctor, keep all scheduled appointments, and call the pediatrician’s office with any concerns you may have.

For more information:

Jaundice in Newborns: Parent FAQs

Jaundice in Newborns


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