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.