What you need to know about newborn jaundice

If you notice that your baby’s skin and eyeballs appear a little bit yellow on the third or fourth day after she is born, don’t panic. Most babies develop some degree of jaundice, and it’s as common as prickly heat in babies.

Jaundice is caused by the build-up of bilirubin (a by-product of old red blood cells) in our blood. Everyday, old red blood cells die and they are replaced with new ones. When red blood cells die, your body gets rid of it, but bilirubin, a yellow pigment that protects the cell, is left behind. This happens in our body everyday, but we don’t turn yellow because our liver filters the bilirubin from our blood, and gets rid of it.

Cause of newborn jaundice
Babies are born with more red blood cells than they need. In the first few days after birth, these red blood cells start to die. However, your baby’s liver isn’t mature enough to handle the extra amount of bilirubin, so they start to build up and settle in the skin, turning you baby’s skin yellow.

Once your baby’s liver matures and the extra red blood cells are gone, the yellow tinge will start to disappear. This usually happens within one to two weeks after, and it is harmless.

Abnormal jaundice
If your baby develops jaundice within 24 hours after birth, it is considered abnormal. It means that red blood cells are destroyed too fast, and too much bilirubin are released in your baby’s system, which if not treated can cause brain damage. However, this rarely happens as abnormal jaundice can be easily treated.

Cause of abnormal jaundice
Abnormal jaundice occurs when your and your baby’s blood type are incompatible. For example, you may have a type-O blood and your baby may have a type A or B, or you may be Rh- and your baby is Rh+. When your baby is born, your own antibodies are circulating in your baby’s blood stream to support your baby’s immature immune system. However, if you have incompatible blood types, your baby’s antibodies will see yours as a foreign body and start attacking it, damaging your baby’s red blood cells in the process. As a result, high level of bilirubin is produced, and jaundice occurs quickly.

Treatment for abnormal jaundice
When jaundice appears within 24 hours after your baby is born, your paediatrician will take a blood sample from your baby to check her bilirubin level. If it is low, it is harmless, and it may not need any treatment. However, if it is too high and is rising rapidly, your doctor may decide to increase your baby’s fluid intake to flash out the excess bilirubin, and put your baby under a phototherapy lamp. The lamp dissolves the extra bilirubin deposited in the skin so it can be excreted in the urine.
Alternatively, your doctor may decide to use a bili-blanket instead of phototherapy lamp. Your baby will be wrapped in a blanket with phototherapy lights that dissolve jaundice.

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