Jaundice in babies
Michael McQueen, MD, is a board-certified neonatologist on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: How do I know if my baby has jaundice and what does that mean for her health?
Answer: Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of your baby’s skin. To some degree, jaundice develops in nearly all babies and usually is not a serious problem. This discoloration is caused by an increased amount of a molecule called bilirubin, which is a yellowish pigment found in small amounts in everyone’s blood. After babies are born, they begin a normal process of breaking down old red blood cells and making new ones. Excess bilirubin is a by-product of the red blood cell break down. Ultimately, the bilrubin is processed in the liver and excreted from the body, but because the newborn liver can’t keep up with the initial bilirubin production, the bilrubin is temporarily stored in the skin, causing the yellow tint or jaundice.
While it is rare, some babies accumulate too much bilirubin, which can be dangerous. At Banner Estrella Medical Center, each newborn is screened for hyperbilirubinemia, or too much bilirubin, when they are 24 hours old. However, the peak bilirubin levels in full-term babies occur between days 3 to 5 of life, when many new mothers and babies already are home from the hospital. That is why it is important to watch your newborn closely for signs of a yellow tinge, and to keep your early appointments with your pediatrician.
If the baby does need treatment for excess jaundice, the treatment is usually very simple. Babies are put under phototherapy lights or “bilirubin lights,” usually for 24 to 72 hours. These special lights assist the newborn by changing the shape of the bilirubin molecule, making it easier for the baby to eliminate the excess bilirubin and regain their healthy newborn coloring.