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Jaundice in Babies

Seeing yellow? Here's what you need to know about identifying and treating jaundice in your newborn.

If you notice a yellowish tinge to your baby's skin, don't worry. Jaundice in babies is rather common. Many infants will display some yellowing of the skin when they're between 2 and 4 days old. Most times, jaundice is completely harmless and subsides within a couple of weeks.

"In about nine out of 10 infants, the color fades as babies' feedings and diaper output become better established," explains Dr. Vinod Bhutani, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine who has a specialty in neonatal jaundice biology and management. Although it is rare in this country, jaundice left unmonitored or untreated can become a serious condition that can damage a baby's brain. So, while you shouldn't worry if you're seeing yellow, you do need to take jaundice seriously and seek treatment for it.
 

What you need to know about jaundice:
 

  • What It Is
    "Jaundice is the yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes and is caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream," says Dr. Naim Alkhouri, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic's Children's Hospital, who has a specialty interest in liver disease. Bilirubin is a kind of "waste chemical" of the normal breakdown of red blood cells that passes through the liver and is eventually excreted from the body.
     
  • How You Identify It
    If you notice a yellow or yellow-orange glow to your baby's skin, it's likely jaundice. In babies with darker skin, this discoloration can be seen in the whites of the eyes. To check for jaundice in babies, press gently on the nose or forehead with your index finger and then release. If the skin where you pressed is yellowish, your infant probably has jaundice.

    Dr. AIkhouri says that in addition to this home test, all infants should be screened for jaundice every 12 hours in the hospital or birthing center. Two kinds of diagnostic tests are available to check for jaundice in babies. Dr. Bhutani explains that one is a noninvasive screening with a light probe, a device used to measure yellow pigmentation, and the other is a simple blood test that checks the bilirubin level in the baby. "The decision to measure bilirubin is based on clinical findings of jaundice, including the baby's appearance and whether she's breastfed or formula-fed," says Dr. Alkhouri.
     
  • How You Treat It
    The best way to rid bilirubin from your baby's system is to feed your baby frequently from the breast or bottle and track the number of wet diapers your baby produces. The increased feedings cause your baby to have more bowel movements, which helps to eliminate excess bilirubin from his system. In more severe cases, phototherapy or exposure to a specific spectrum of blue light is necessary. Babies sleep fully exposed to this safe and effective light for 24 to 48 hours. The light is absorbed by the skin and helps break down the bilirubin. In the past, babies were exposed to sunlight, usually by placing them in a sunny window, but because of the harmful effects of ultraviolet light, sunlight is no longer recommended.
     

See your pediatrician right away if jaundice lingers for more than two weeks or your baby seems listless, sleepier than usual or isn't interested in feeding. Seek assistance with breastfeeding if it doesn't seem to be going well or you aren't happy with the process. Fortunately, a mother's normal, nurturing care -- through regular feedings and monitoring diaper output -- is the best way to treat jaundice in babies.

For more on baby health, read about the signs of dehydration in infants.

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She's a frequent contributor to Care.com and the mom of two teen girls.

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