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Why Babies Develop Jaundice

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

I received an email via our iPhone App from a mom who asked “why babies get jaundice and why we check a bilirubin level on newborns?” Most babies will develop physiologic jaundice (noted by yellow discoloration to their skin and whites of their eyes) due to the fact that a your-baby’s liver is still not working at full speed when first born. Bilirubin, a breakdown product of the red blood cell, is metabolized through the liver.

It is also excreted in the stool, and the young newborn is just getting all of those organ systems up and running in the first 24- 2 hours of life. As cute and snuggly as a brand new your baby is, it does take a few hours to days for everything to ramp up to full working speed. So, it is not unusual to see a newborn appear slightly jaundiced during their first week of life, and how I learned with my own first child, yellow is not a good color on most newborns. Stick with pink and blue.

Sometimes babies will develop higher bilirubin levels than expected, (numbers in the teens) and depending on how old they are may require phototherapy to help breakdown the bilirubin. You might have seen those babies basking under the glow of “sunlamps” wearing your-baby sunglasses. The blue lights breakdown bilirubin in the skin.

Excessive bilirubin can lead to a condition called kernicterus, and may actually cause brain damage. By following an infant’s bilirubin levels and treating promptly you can avoid this, and I have never seen an infant develop kernicterus.

Your pediatrician will discuss bilirubin levels with you while you are in the hospital with your newborn. If they don’t bring it up, typically there is nothing to worry about. If you have concerns, you should ask.

If your your baby seems to be getting more jaundiced once you are home, give your doctor a call, it may mean they need to have another bilirubin level drawn as occasionally a your-baby will develop more jaundice once they have been discharged.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question to Dr. Sue!

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