Welcome to parenthood!
You’re currently reclining in your not so comfortable hospital bed and waiting for the doctor’s words so you can leave the hospital. You are sick and tired of the plastic bed, of the hospital smell, and of the doctors and nurses in general. The doctor comes into your room and says the dreaded words, “you’re not going home tonight.”
You hear alarm bells in your head, you start panicking a little bit. What’s wrong? What happened? Is the baby okay? Am I okay?
The doctor continues with a sentence that makes little sense: “Baby is fine, there’s just a little problem with the bilirubin levels.”
What does that mean? That word has to be foreign.
Another way of saying a high bilirubin count is by saying the baby is jaundiced. Jaundice is a lot more common than you may think. It usually appears within the first week of the baby’s life and happens more to boys than it does to girls. Jaundice is rarely something to be nervous about and it treated with noninvasive therapy.
Infant jaundice is caused by the baby having too much bilirubin in his/her bloodstream. Bilirubin is the result of the broken down red blood cells and usually leaves the body through the stool. However, once baby is born the body goes through some quick changes. The baby starts forming new hemoglobin (oxygen-carrying protein molecules)and as a result, has to quickly break down the old ones. The quick process produces more bilirubin that has to be cleared out of the body by the liver. An underdeveloped liver cannot keep up with the fast process and can’t get rid of the bilirubin fast enough- resulting in an excess of bilirubin.
In case the doctor does not identify your baby’s jaundice, the way you can tell your baby has excess bilirubin is by staying vigilant and looking for the symptoms I will list below.
The most common sign is yellow skin and sclerae, which is the white of baby’s eyes. The discoloration starts on the head and spreads to large areas of the body first, then to limbs. Additional symptoms can include drowsiness, poor latching, irritability, and discolored stool and urine.
Don’t worry! Your baby won’t be the sickly shade of yellow forever!
Usually, treatment for jaundice is not really necessary. The excess levels of bilirubin level out once the baby’s liver starts to function normally. However, in cases of severe jaundice, your baby may need to either stay or be readmitted to the hospital.
Treatments vary but the most common one is light therapy (phototherapy). Your baby will be placed under a special- usually blue light. Your baby will be covered by a plastic shield to filter out the ultraviolet light. This therapy works because the light manipulates the structure of bilirubin molecules so they can be passed through stool.
In some very extreme cases, your baby’s blood may be repeatedly withdrawn and replaced with donor blood. This procedure is only considered if the phototherapy doesn’t work and is to prevent the baby from being placed in the ICU.
The best way you can prevent jaundice as a new mom or dad is simply by making sure your baby is nourished and well fed. For the first couple days of baby’s life, the feeding schedule should be very regular- baby being breastfed 8 to 12 times within a 24 hour period and formula babies being fed 1-2 ounces of formula every 2-3 hours.
Baby being jaundiced is very normal and very common. Your are in the capable care of plenty of medical professionals who deal with this on a daily (probably hourly!) basis. Just sit back and relax.
Some babies quiet down when under phototherapy better when held by their moms- you can always squeeze some cuddles in that way!!