Most infants (50-70%) develop jaundice in the first weeks of life. If your baby has jaundice, he may have yellow-tinted skin or eyes. The yellow color is the result of too much bilirubin in your baby’s blood; bilirubin is a brownish – yellow color. Typically parents notice yellowing in the face and eyes in the first 2-4 days of life; the yellowing starts in the face and moves down to the toes. Bilirubin levels typically peak between 3 to 7 days after birth.
Before birth, your baby’s body uses your placenta to remove bilirubin from his blood. But during the first days of life, your baby’s liver can be slow to begin working and bilirubin can build up. We all have bilirubin in our bodies, it is a naturally occurring waste product created when our bodies replace red blood cells (the lifespan of a red blood cell is 120 days). Usually our liver filters out the bilirubin and we excrete it in our stool. If you have ever wondered where our poop gets it is color – look no further than bilirubin!
The best way to shorten the duration of jaundice, or prevent it all together, is to breastfeed your baby early and often. Breastfeeding within the first hour of life helps your baby pass the dark, sticky poop called meconium and takes out bilirubin with it. In the first hours, your baby is drinking colostrum, which is a laxative in addition to an immune system booster. Put your baby to breast often, frequent breastfeeding helps your baby pass more stool and bilirubin too.
There are 3 common types of jaundice:
1. Physiological jaundice. It is often most noticeable when the baby is 2 to 4 days old. The most common type of jaundice, it does not cause any distress and disappears without treatment by 14 days old.
2. Breastfeeding jaundice. This type often occurs in breastfed babies during the first 7 days of life. If your baby has difficulty breastfeeding or your milk comes in after day 3, your baby may develop breastfeeding jaundice.
3. Breast milk jaundice. Develops after the first 4-7 days of life, persists longer than 14 days and has no other identifiable cause. Doctors are still unsure what causes breast milk jaundice. However, evidence suggests it is related to the interaction between some of the components in breast milk and bilirubin.
If you notice a yellow tint to your newborn’s skin or eyes, talk to your baby’s doctor about the need for testing and monitoring her bilirubin level. Bilirubin levels can be tested with a blood or skin test. A very high level of bilirubin can result in a condition known as kernicterus and brain damage.
Most cases of jaundice resolve without treatment as the liver matures and filters blood more effectively; frequent breastfeeding helps the bilirubin pass through and out in your baby’s stool. More severe jaundice may require treatment with a bili-light (or phototherapy). Phototherapy is a common and highly effective method of treatment that uses light to break down bilirubin in your baby’s body. It looks like a little tanning bed; your baby will only be in a diaper and wearing protective goggles. Absorbing the special blue-spectrum light through the skin helps your baby break down bilirubin.
While most babies develop jaundice, few need treatment. The combination of frequent breastfeeding and your baby’s liver working more effectively usually take care of the problem. See your pediatrician if your baby acts more tired than usual or you have any concerns.