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"Understanding Jaundice in Children: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options"

Updated: Mar 29

Newborn Jaundice: When a Baby's Skin Turns Yellow

Jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes, is a common concern in newborns. It occurs due to a buildup of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during the breakdown of red blood cells. While a newborn's liver is still developing, it might take some time to effectively remove bilirubin from the bloodstream.

Causes of Jaundice in Newborns:

  • Normal Breakdown: In most cases (around 60% of full-term and 80% of premature babies), jaundice is a harmless, temporary condition called physiologic jaundice. It typically appears within a few days after birth and resolves on its own within a week or two.

  • Breastfeeding Challenges: Some newborns, especially those born prematurely or with difficulty breastfeeding, may experience breastfeeding jaundice. This happens because they're not receiving enough breast milk, leading to dehydration and reduced bilirubin elimination.

  • Breastmilk Jaundice: Around 2% of breastfed babies develop a specific type of jaundice called breastmilk jaundice. It appears later in the first week, peaks around two weeks, and can last for several weeks. While not harmful, it might require tests to rule out other causes.

  • Hemolytic Issues: In some cases, jaundice can be caused by problems with red blood cells breaking down too rapidly (hemolysis). This can occur due to Rh incompatibility, ABO blood group incompatibility, or other factors affecting red blood cell fragility.

  • Liver Problems: If a newborn's liver isn't functioning properly due to infection or other reasons, it can hinder bilirubin removal, leading to jaundice.

Risk Factors for Jaundice:

  • Prematurity: Premature babies are less efficient at processing bilirubin.

  • Family History: Babies born to mothers with diabetes or Rh disease are at higher risk.

  • Difficult Birth: A difficult delivery with significant bruising or bleeding can increase bilirubin levels.

Signs and Symptoms:

The primary symptom of jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, often starting on the face and progressing downwards. Other signs may include poor feeding and lethargy. Early diagnosis is crucial to prevent complications.

Diagnosis and Treatment:

The timing of jaundice onset helps doctors determine the cause. Early jaundice (within 24 hours) often requires immediate treatment. Treatment options include:

  • Phototherapy: This involves exposing the baby to special blue light that helps break down bilirubin.

  • Feeding Support: Ensuring frequent breastfeeding or supplementing with formula can help eliminate bilirubin through bowel movements.

  • Exchange Transfusion: In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary to remove bilirubin-rich blood and replace it with fresh blood.

Preventing Complications:

Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to prevent kernicterus, a rare but serious complication where high bilirubin levels damage the brain.

Key Takeaways:

  • Jaundice is a common newborn concern caused by bilirubin buildup.

  • Most cases are harmless and resolve on their own.

  • Early feeding, timely diagnosis, and proper treatment are crucial.

  • If you notice any signs of jaundice in your newborn, consult your pediatrician immediately.

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