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Infant Jaundice: What Is It and How Is It Treated?

Dec 26, 2018

Infant jaundice happens when bilirubin (a pigment made when the liver breaks down blood cells) builds up in a baby’s body. This usually happens because the baby’s liver is not mature enough to get rid of bilirubin as fast as it’s made. Infant jaundice is when make a baby’s skin or eyes look yellowish.

Jaundice is most common in babies who are breastfed or who are born before 38 weeks gestation. In most cases, it doesn’t require treatment and goes away on its own as the liver matures. In rare cases, however, bilirubin builds up to levels that can cause health problems and even brain damage, so it is important to have your baby checked by a healthcare professional if you think he or she may have jaundice.

How Can You Tell If Your Baby Has Jaundice?

If you deliver your baby at a hospital, the doctors will check for signs of jaundice before discharge. A pediatrician should see your baby between three and seven days after birth to check for jaundice as well.

You can also check your baby at home. If you notice the white part of your baby’s eyes look yellowish, or if there is a yellow tint to the skin, it is possible your baby is jaundiced. You can also press gently on your baby’s forehead or nose. If the skin looks yellowish after you lift your finger, it may be a sign of jaundice.

If a doctor suspects jaundice after looking at your baby, a blood test can help confirm the diagnosis. The doctor may also do a test to measure light shown through your baby’s skin.

How Is Jaundice Treated?

Babies with mild jaundice usually don’t need any treatment. Your doctor may tell you to feed your baby more often (this helps the baby produce stool, which gets rid of bilirubin). If your baby is not getting enough milk, the doctor may also suggest feeding more (or supplementing with formula if you are breastfeeding) until weight gain picks up and the jaundice fades.

However, babies with moderate or severe jaundice may need to be treated in the hospital. Treatments aim to lower the amount of bilirubin in your baby’s blood. Options include:

  • Light therapy: A special lamp is shined on your baby. The light helps your baby’s body change the shape of bilirubin so that it can be passed in the urine and stool. This Helping Hands – Jaundice resource will give you a good idea about what to expect with light (phototherapy) treatment.
  • Intravenous immunoglobulin: When jaundice is caused by blood type differences between mom and baby, giving immunoglobulin right into the baby’s veins can help fight off the baby’s bad reaction to mom’s blood that caused bilirubin build-up.
  • Blood transfusion: If other treatments don’t work, your baby may need a blood transfusion (called an ‘exchange transfusion’). Small amounts of blood are repeatedly removed and replaced by donor blood, gradually diluting the amount of bilirubin in the blood.<

Could It Be Something More Than Jaundice?

Most babies have jaundice due to their immature liver or a temporary increase in bilirubin that will quickly go away on its own. But in some cases, a baby’s jaundice is caused by a problem such as:

  • A reaction to the blood from the mom that passed to the baby during delivery
  • An infection
  • A problem with the baby’s liver
  • Internal bleeding
  • A problem with the baby’s blood cells that causes them to break down too quickly
  • An enzyme deficiency
  • If your baby has skin or eye yellowing plus any of the symptoms below, call your doctor:
  • Skin or eyes get more yellow than they were before
  • Yellowish belly, arms or legs
  • Hard to wake up or acting sluggish or listless
  • Not eating well or gaining weight
  • Sick, feverish or showing other symptoms that worry you
  • High-pitched crying
  • Arching the back and neck

If Your Baby Is Jaundiced

Don’t panic. The vast majority of jaundice cases are mild and easily treated. Even if your baby requires hospitalization or extra care, jaundice is usually very treatable. When caught early, its harmful effects can often be avoided, and doctors will work hard to help your baby recover. In the meantime, feed your baby often, pay attention to changes in symptoms and reach out to your pediatrician if you have any concerns.

Liver Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital
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Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Alexander Weymann, MD

Alexander Weymann, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist, is the director of the Liver Center, and medical director of Liver Transplantation at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.