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Patient education: Jaundice in babies (The Basics)

Patient education: Jaundice in babies (The Basics)

What is jaundice? — "Jaundice" is the word doctors and nurses use when a baby's skin or white part of the eye turns yellow. Jaundice is common in newborns and can happen within a day or days of a baby's birth. Babies are usually checked for jaundice after they are born, while they are still in the hospital, and again at their first checkup after going home.

Jaundice happens when a baby has high levels of a substance called "bilirubin" in the blood. Jaundice is a sign that testing is needed to check the baby's bilirubin level.

Babies can have high bilirubin levels for different reasons. For example, some babies who breastfeed can get jaundice if they are not getting enough milk. Jaundice is also more common in babies who are born early.

It is important for babies to be checked for jaundice. That's because without treatment, very high bilirubin levels can lead to brain damage.

What are the symptoms of jaundice? — Jaundice causes the skin and the white parts of the eyes to turn yellow. It often happens first in the face, but can spread to the chest, belly, and arms. It spreads to the legs last.

Sometimes, jaundice can be severe. A baby with severe jaundice can have orange-yellow skin, or yellow skin below the knee on the lower part of the leg. The "whites" of the eyes might look yellow, too. A baby with severe jaundice might also:

Be hard to wake up

Have a high-pitched cry

Be unhappy and keep crying

Keep bending their body or neck backward

How can I tell if my baby has jaundice? — You can tell if your baby has jaundice by pressing 1 finger on your baby's nose or forehead. Then lift up your finger. If the skin is yellow where you pressed, your baby has jaundice.

When should I call my doctor or nurse? — Call your doctor or nurse if:

Your baby's jaundice is getting worse

Your baby has symptoms of severe jaundice

Is there a test for jaundice? — Yes. A doctor can do an exam and test for jaundice. This can be done with a blood test or by measuring the bilirubin level through the skin.

Is there anything I can do on my own to help the jaundice get better? — Yes. To help your baby's jaundice get better, you can make sure your baby drinks enough. If you breastfeed your baby, make sure you breastfeed often and in the right way. If you are worried that your baby is not drinking enough, talk with your doctor or nurse.

You can tell that your baby is drinking enough if:

They have 6 or more wet diapers a day

Their bowel movements change from dark green to yellow

They seem happy after feeding

Your doctor will tell you if your baby needs any more treatment. If your baby's bilirubin level is only a little high, their jaundice will most likely get better on its own. But if your baby's bilirubin levels are very high, or if they were born early, the doctor will probably suggest treatment.

How is jaundice treated? — The most common treatment for jaundice is "light therapy." This is also called "phototherapy." During light therapy, a doctor puts the baby under a special blue light (figure 1). Babies who get light therapy are usually naked or wear only a diaper so that the light can shine on their skin. You will still be able to visit and touch your baby while they get light therapy. You will also be able to breastfeed your baby. While you are holding or feeding your baby, the doctor might suggest using a special "light blanket" so the baby can continue to get light therapy.

In some cases, light therapy can be done at home instead of in the hospital. Your baby's doctor will talk to you about whether this might be an option for you.

More on this topic

Patient education: Breastfeeding (The Basics)
Patient education: Poor weight gain in babies and children (The Basics)
Patient education: When a baby is born premature (The Basics)

Patient education: Jaundice in newborn infants (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Breastfeeding guide (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Common breastfeeding problems (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 01, 2023.
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