Jaundice is a common, and usually harmless, condition that occurs in about one-half of all full-term infants. Most hospitals are now screening babies for jaundice prior to discharge to ensure proper care. Physiologic or “normal” jaundice may appear on the second or third day of life and is evidenced by a yellow coloring of the skin and the white part of the eye. This reflects the liver’s immaturity and resolves as the liver becomes better at removing bilirubin, the chemical in the blood that causes jaundice.
Premature babies are even more likely to become jaundiced. It may appear later and last longer in these infants, becoming most noticeable between the fourth and seventh day of life.
In breast-fed babies, jaundice is a reflection of how easy it is to digest breast milk. These babies can keep a minimal amount of jaundice for two to three months. Normally, this is of little concern. However, in some cases, it is the result of mild dehydration. If the condition becomes severe, we may suggest that a supplement be given for a brief period. In those cases, the baby should always be breast fed first and then be offered a formula or electrolyte solution after each breast feeding.
In infants who have excessive jaundice, the bilirubin level is checked regularly by testing a small sample of blood taken from the baby’s heel. Whether he or she needs special treatment will be determined by the level of bilirubin, the age of the baby and the cause of jaundice.
Treatment for jaundice varies from giving extra fluids and using indirect sunlight to phototherapy (placing the baby under special lights), all of which speed up the removal of bilirubin from the body. Fluid intake is very important because bilirubin is excreted in the stool and urine.