Childhood ailments: jaundice

It can be alarming to discover your baby has jaundice. But don’t worry – it’s common in newborns and usually goes away on its own or is treated easily with light therapy. Here’s what you should know.

What does jaundice look like?

Your baby’s skin and the whites of his eyes look yellow. The yellowish colour starts on his face, moves to the chest and tummy, and then the legs and arms. If your baby has a darker skin tone, it can be more difficult to see this change in skin colour. You can also look inside his mouth, on the soles of his feet and on the palms of his hands.

Why does it happen?

The red blood cells in your baby’s body break down every day to make a yellow liquid called bilirubin. When his liver can’t break down this liquid quickly enough, his skin and eyes turn yellow because the bilirubin builds up in his body.

How do I treat it?

Jaundice often goes away on its own in a week or two. There are a number of treatments you can apply, like:

• Feed him more – Breastfeed your baby as soon as you can. Your first milk, called colostrum, is a laxative that helps your baby poop more often. This can help clear out bilirubin from his body. If you are having trouble breastfeeding, speak to your clinic nurse about pumping your breast milk to feed your baby from a bottle or feeding him formula.

• Wake him – Babies with jaundice become sleepy and feed less often. This can make the jaundice worse. Wake your little one every two hours for a feed, no matter how tired he is.

• Use light therapy – This is when he is put under blue-green lights to help the bilirubin leave his body through his urine. He’ll only wear a nappy so that his skin can soak up the light and eye patches will protect his eyes. It can be scary seeing your little one in this situation, but don’t worry. The lights don’t hurt your baby at all – they have a nice nap under those lights!

When is it serious?

Baby jaundice can become serious when a sleepy baby doesn’t wake up to feed and becomes lethargic and floppy. Call your clinic nurse immediately if his jaundice becomes worse – it may be necessary for your little one to get more light therapy.

How do I prevent it?

There isn’t much you can do to prevent it. It’s not something you ate while pregnant, so don’t feel guilty. The best thing to do is to feed him at least every two hours or about eight to 12 feedings per day in the first few days.

Read more: Baby sleep myths busted

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