More than half of all full-term babies and approximately four out of five premature babies develop jaundice shortly after birth and it is usually not a problem; however, it can be a sign of a serious disease, so itís best to have your baby examined by a doctor and treated if necessary.
Jaundice is caused by excessive bilirubin, a byproduct of dying red blood cells, in the blood. We lose and replace about one percent of our red blood cells everyday, and the resulting bilirubin is processed through our liver and excreted in our stool. However, if too many red blood cells die at one time and there is too much bilirubin in the blood or the liver canít dispose of it quickly enough, it builds up and causes the skin and whites of the eyes to turn yellow.Babies are generally born with more red blood cells than they need, the ordeal of birth can cause extra red blood cells to die (especially if forceps or a vacuum was used), and babiesí immature livers are unable to deal with the excess bilirubin.
There are two general types of jaundice: physiologic and pathologic. Physiologic jaundice is the normal type of jaundice seen in healthy babies and usually appears when a baby is two or three days old, peaks by day four, and subsides by day seven.
Breastfeeding jaundice occurs in the first week of life in more than 1 in 10 breastfed infants. It is thought this type of jaundice is caused by reduced amounts of breastmilk in the first days after birth because of infrequent feeding or inefficient feeding, leading to dehydration or low caloric intake. This is a type of physiologic jaundice.
Jaundice is called pathologic when it poses a risk to the baby, either because of its degree or its cause. Pathologic jaundice may arise for several reasons, including blood incompatibility, blood diseases, genetic syndromes, liver diseases, infections, medications, or physiologic jaundice that is heightened for some reason (such as prematurity, difficult delivery, or dehydration). Pathologic jaundice can appear earlier or later, rise faster, reach higher levels, last longer, and be accompanied by other symptoms, such as vomiting, dark urine, lethargy, too much weight loss, and abnormal body temperature.
When bilirubin reaches extremely high levels (more than 20 mg) it can lead to a rare but very serious condition called kernicterus, which can lead to deafness, severe developmental disabilities, and an unusual form of cerebral palsy. Jaundice can also cause problems for babies with certain risk factors, including:
Babies who are born before 37 weeks
Babies who weigh less than 2500 grams at birth
Babies whose blood type is incompatible with their mothersí
Babies who have an infection
Babies who needed resuscitation at birth
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