Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Jaundice, Part II: What is Jaundice and How is it Treated?

This is the second in a two-part series on jaundice, a relatively common and usually mild condition that occurs in newborn babies. In Part I, I described my own experience with jaundice in my fourth baby. Here in Part II, we'll look at jaundice from a clinical perspective.

What is newborn jaundice?

Jaundice in newborns is caused by rising bilirubin levels in the blood. Bilirubin is a byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells, which all babies have an excess of at birth. Normally, bilirubin is processed by the liver and excreted through bowel movements. While many babies will effectively and efficiently process this excess bilirubin, some babies have too much bilirubin, or their liver can't handle all of the bilirubin they're producing, which causes it to build up in the blood. When this happens, some of the bilirubin is passed to the skin, which will give the whites of the eyes and the skin a yellow-ish tint. If the bilirubin levels in the blood reach high levels, treatment may be recommended.

There are three basic types of jaundice found in newborns:
  • Physiological Jaundice is the normal course of elevated bilirubin caused by the breakdown of red blood cells in the newborn baby. This type of jaundice is normal and not dangerous unless bilirubin levels reach a certain threshold. Most babies will require no special treatment.
  • Breastfeeding Jaundice occurs when a breastfed baby isn't getting enough to eat in the first several days of life. Because he is not feeding well, he is not having enough bowel movements to clear out the bilirubin from his system. If bilirubin levels reach a certain threshold, various treatment scenarios may be proposed. Otherwise, assistance with improving breastfeeding is typically all that is needed.
  • Breastmilk Jaundice occurs in a very small percentage of babies and is when an exclusively breastfed baby has elevated bilirubin levels but no other symptoms of jaundice and is feeding well and growing as expected. This is not a dangerous condition and will typically resolve within 6 to 10 weeks without intervention.
Notice that all three types of newborn jaundice usually resolve without treatment. Once good feeding is established and the baby's digestive system is kicked into gear, he will clear out the bilirubin on his own. 

Jaundice occurs more commonly in premature babies or babies whose liver may otherwise be compromised. It also may be caused or complicated by blood type incompatibility between the baby and the mother, birth injury, medications, or infection.

My oldest son N with jaundice. You can see how yellow his forehead looks. He was being treated in the hospital and was taken off the lights for a feeding in this picture.

When does jaundice need to be treated?

The trouble with elevated bilirubin is that it is known, at high levels, to cause a totally preventable, irreversible, severe brain damage called kernicterus. Kernicterus occurs when bilirubin literally stains the brain cells. Babies with kernicterus will suffer lifelong mental retardation, which may include both physical and cognitive delays. Kernicterus happens when the bilirubin levels in the blood are so high that bilirubin is conducted into the brain. It is not known what these levels need to be to cause kernicterus, and it is not clear if simple physiological jaundice, breastfeeding jaundice, or breastmilk jaundice alone can cause this terrible outcome or if other complications are involved. It is clear, however, that by reducing bilirubin levels before they reach a high concentration will prevent kernicterus.

To determine if your baby is at risk for needing additional treatment for jaundice, your pediatrician will order a blood test to measure your baby's bilirubin level. This will be plotted on a chart along with the baby's age (see below). There are four identified curves on this chart: Low Risk, Low Intermediate Risk, High Intermediate Risk, and High Risk. If your baby's bilirubin levels fall into the High Intermediate or High Risk zone, treatment will likely be recommended.

Find your baby's age along the bottom and plot the Serum Bilirubin level on the vertical axis 
to see which zone your baby's jaundice risk falls in.

Aside from kernicterus, jaundice may cause other difficulties in the early days of your baby's life, which may prompt your doctor to recommend treatment or management. High levels of bilirubin may cause your baby to become sleepy and uninterested in eating. This will make it more difficult for your baby to clear out bilirubin, and it will mean fewer feedings at the breast, which may cause a delay in your breastmilk increasing in volume, or it may cause a low supply due to lack of stimulation. This, in turn, will mean your baby is not getting enough to eat even when he does wake to eat, which will make him more dehydrated and lethargic, which will make him less likely to wake to feed, which will further reduce the amount of calories and fluids he takes in, which will worsen the jaundice and continue the cycle. This is a very dangerous cycle because you end up with a starving baby and a delay in milk production or a reduced supply. In this case, treating both the feeding issues and the jaundice are priorities.

Most pediatricians will recommend treating any kind of jaundice before bilirubin levels reach 20mg/dL in the blood. Most babies will not reach this critical point, but some may approach it, and it is important to know what the treatment options are so that you can make an informed decision about whether, when, and how to treat your baby for jaundice.

How do we treat jaundice?

The simplest treatment for jaundice is feeding. If your baby has not been feeding well, increasing the number and quality of feedings will help stimulate bowel movements and clear out the bilirubin. Make sure your baby is eating at least 12 times a day and that when he feeds, he is actually taking in colostrum or milk. Watch for signs of a deep suck and swallowing when your baby is feeding. Make sure he is actively sucking and swallowing for at least several minutes at a time. If he falls asleep at the breast after a very short time, try to stimulate additional sucking by massaging the breast while he is latched on. You can try to wake the baby by burping him or changing his diaper and then return him to the breast for further feeding. Also, be sure to monitor diaper output. 

If your breastmilk has not increased in volume by the end of the third day postpartum (72 hours), it is important to feed your baby from some other source, whether donor breastmilk or formula. The number one rule, here, is feed the baby. Ideally, this supplementation would occur at breast using a feeding tube or syringe so that the baby can continue to stimulate milk production while receiving the supplemental milk or formula. A three to four-day-old baby does need more than colostrum, though colostrum is enough for a baby in the first and second days of life.

If the baby is feeding well but bilirubin levels remain in the High or High Intermediate Risk zones on the above chart, phototherapy may be recommended. Phototherapy involves the use of a special blue light that shines on the baby, with a maximum amount of skin exposed to the light. The light breaks the bilirubin down into a water soluble form that the baby can excrete through his urine. This, in addition to regular bowel movements, will bring down his bilirubin levels much more quickly. Phototherapy can be done in the hospital nursery or at home using a portable phototherapy device. Your doctor will likely have a preference as to whether to keep your baby in the hospital (or readmit him) to use the hospital phototherapy bed or whether to have a home healthcare service bring you a home phototherapy machine to use. It typically takes 12 to 24 hours, or up to two days at the outside, of phototherapy to bring down bilirubin levels to an acceptable range. It is important for the baby to continue to feed regularly while under phototherapy. Continue breastfeeding about every two to three hours. Phototherapy is not invasive and not painful for the baby. The baby is kept warm and generally just sleeps while under the lights.

Baby N on home phototherapy. A pad that emits light is against his back, connected to a machine 
by the gray tube you can see emerging from his blankets.

Some pediatricians may recommend supplementing with formula for 12 to 24 hours, or even a course of "interrupted breastfeeding" for 12 to 24 hours, to clear out breastfeeding or breastmilk jaundice. This path only becomes necessary if breastfeeding is not going well and the baby is clearly in need of feeding beyond what he is getting from his mother alone. Supplementation with formula will help to treat the jaundice, as it will cause the baby to pee and poop much more than from colostrum and early milk alone. It will also help to rouse a baby who is lethargic from lack of feedings and/or high bilirubin levels and may be helpful in severe cases. However, be aware that introducing formula may have other long-term consequences to your baby and your breastfeeding relationship. It is important to weigh the risks and benefits of supplementation. If possible, discuss these risks with your pediatrician and a lactation consultant before making your final decision. If you do choose to supplement, be sure you do not reduce the amount of at-breast feeding your baby does. If you cannot be with your baby, you should pump your breasts every two to three hours, or in between feedings, to stimulate your own milk production. It may be possible to supplement your baby with your own pumped milk rather than formula, if you are able to produce for a pump.

How long does it take for jaundice to go away?

Bilirubin levels will generally peak between days four and six of your baby's life and then taper off into a normal range in about one to two weeks. Your doctor may want to monitor your baby's bilirubin levels until they begin to fall by ordering daily blood tests. Assuming your baby is otherwise healthy and feeding well, once it is clear that his bilirubin has begun to fall, no further treatment will be necessary. Typically, once bilirubin levels peak and begin to drop, they will continue this downward trend.

The exception to this is breastmilk jaundice. Babies with breastmilk jaundice may appear yellow and have elevated bilirubin for up to about 10 weeks of age. Breastmilk jaundice is not dangerous and will go away on its own. As long as the baby is otherwise healthy, alert, feeding and growing well, and meeting milestones, you can simply wait until the jaundice resolves. Some pediatricians may recommend interrupting breastfeeding (stop breastfeeding and give formula) for one to three days to clear out breastmilk jaundice. While this will effectively "treat" the jaundice, it may have a negative impact on your breastfeeding relationship as well as introducing other risks of formula feeding. Unless there is other cause for concern, this is probably not a necessary step in simple breastmilk jaundice.

In the first week of life, while bilirubin is still elevated, watch your baby for sleepiness, not waking to feed, floppiness, and dehydration (urine crystals in the diaper, dry mouth, sunken fontanel). Examine your baby in natural light to look for increased yellowing. Contact your pediatrician immediately if you have any cause for concern.

Also, be aware that jaundice tends to run in families. If you have one baby with jaundice, there is an increased chance that a future baby will have jaundice as well. Jaundice is more common in boys than girls, as well. Indeed, all four of my boys had jaundice! 

I hope this information* helps you to have an meaningful conversation with your pediatrician if your baby is diagnosed with jaundice.

*Please note that I am not a medical professional and cannot offer medical advice. This information is provided for your education only and should not be used in place of the advice of your pediatrician during an in-person examination.


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