Your newborn’s skin may look a little yellow for a few days after birth. This is called jaundice, and it’s quite common in newborns. The condition is caused by a buildup of a chemical called bilirubin, which forms when old red blood cells break down. Newborns have extra red blood cells at birth. Therefore, they have more bilirubin. However, because their livers are still immature, they sometimes can’t clean out all the bilirubin.
Jaundice usually appears first in the face, and then spreads downward to the chest, abdomen and legs. Pay attention to any changes in your newborn’s skin color or the coloring in the whites of his eyes. Look at the baby under natural daylight or in a room that has fluorescent lights. A quick and easy way to test for jaundice is to press gently with your fingertips on your child’s chest. If the skin looks white (this is true for babies of all ethnic backgrounds), there is no jaundice. If you see a yellowish color, contact your pediatrician.
In most cases, jaundice clears up without treatment. However, in other cases, bilirubin levels may become very high and treatment will be required. Elevated levels of bilirubin can damage the nervous system. Your child’s doctor may order blood tests to determine the cause of the jaundice. When treatment is necessary, jaundice can be treated with phototherapy (special lights). This involves exposing as much skin as possible to special lights, while using patches to protect the eyes. Your baby may be in the hospital for a couple of days under special lights, which help the body process bilirubin.
While your baby is jaundiced, your doctor may want to examine him in her office after your discharge from the birthing hospital. Good nutrition and hydration are essential to clearing the bilirubin. Your doctor will monitor your baby’s weight, as well as the amount of jaundice, during this period. If you’re breastfeeding, your baby may have a greater tendency toward developing jaundice because breast milk sometimes interferes with the liver’s ability to process bilirubin. If your baby has prolonged jaundice associated with breastfeeding, please discuss your options with your pediatrician. If temporarily discontinuing breastfeeding is recommended, remember to use a breast pump to maintain your milk supply. If your baby becomes jaundiced again after you resume nursing, talk with your child’s doctor about what to do. Babies with jaundice are often sleepy and may need to be awakened to feed. Keeping your baby well hydrated is very important and will help him excrete the bilirubin.