Why Is My Baby Yellow -- Jaundice Explained

newborn

You've given birth to a beautiful baby. There's just one problem: he's looking a little ... yellow, and your doctor says it's jaundice. First thing's first: don't panic! 

The sallow complexion may not be what you were expecting, but jaundice is a common condition that affects around three in five newborns. Most of the time, symptoms (yellow skin and eyes) crop up within one or two days of birth, and while it may look strange, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for why it happens.

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"In the womb, babies live in an oxygen-poor environment and therefore have high levels of red blood cells to compensate," explains Deena Blanchard, MD, a pediatrician in New York at Premier Pediatrics. Once babies are out in the world breathing good old air, their bodies realize they don't need all those red blood cells so they start to break down. This process creates a byproduct called bilirubin.

In adults, bilirubin is "cleared" from the body with the help of the liver, gallbladder, and intestines. Because these systems are still immature in newborns, however, bilirubin can build up -- resulting in yellowish skin and eyes.

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Rest assured this discoloration is not uncomfortable for your baby -- and most times it's of little concern and will clear up on its own. But there are times when jaundice can cause more serious problems in babies, such as irritability, lethargy, loss of appetite, and (in most severe cases) seizures.

"Because bilirubin at high levels can cross the blood brain barrier, it can cause neurologic disorders similar to cerebral palsy," says Ashanti Woods, MD, an attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

So when should you call your doctor? If your baby is significantly more yellow from the time you were discharged from the hospital, is refusing to eat, or simply wants to sleep all the time, those are red flags, and you should consult your physician.

The good news is that jaundice is easily treatable by placing your baby under ultraviolet light -- often called the "bili lights" for bilirubin -- which breaks down the bilirubin into molecules that can be excreted in urine or feces. In more extreme situations, IV hydration, IV medicines that boost the immune system, and blood transfusions can also help.

What's your biggest health concern with your newborn?

 

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