Newborn jaundice: What you need to know

Don’t be alarmed if your infant’s skin has turned slightly yellow. Here’s what you need to know.

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It seems almost like a rite of passage for many new mums: A few hours or days after your baby’s birth, you see a tinge of yellow in his skin and eyes. Known as jaundice, it’s one of the “most common conditions requiring medical attention among newborns, though it’s usually not a problem”, notes Dr Dharshini Gopalakrishnakone from The Obstetrics and Gynaecology Centre, a Singapore Medical Group Clinic.

Recalling her experience, one mother, Jasmine Tay, says that the day her infant son Isaac was due to be discharged, the nurses said that he couldn’t go home because his jaundice levels were high. “His skin was very yellow. Being a first-time mum, I was already very anxious, so I broke down in tears. I was very stressed out as I didn’t know then how common jaundice is.”

Isaac, was warded for two more days, so that he could get phototherapy treatment until his levels dropped. In the meantime, the new mother expressed breastmilk religiously at home, which her husband then delivered to the hospital “It broke my heart to see him crying in the phototherapy machine, but I had to trust the doctors to take care of things. Of course, I was upset that he couldn’t come home with me, but deep inside, I knew that I had to do what was best for his health.” Now 2, Isaac is perfectly healthy.

“I was very stressed out as I didn’t know then how common jaundice is.”

What is newborn jaundice?
Newborn jaundice happens when there is too much bilirubin in the baby’s blood. This is a yellow substance that’s made when the body breaks down old red blood cells. “Newborns make more bilirubin than adults because they have a higher turnover of red blood cells,” Dr Dharshini explains.

When you are pregnant, your body helps to remove bilirubin from your baby’s blood through the placenta. But once your baby is born, his body must get rid of the bilirubin on its own. To check if your baby has the condition, examine him in natural daylight and look for yellowing of his skin or the whites of his eyes.

“Gently press your fingers on the tip of his nose or on his forehead ― if the skin looks yellow where you pressed, it’s likely that your baby has mild jaundice. If your baby doesn’t have jaundice, the skin colour should simply look slightly lighter for a quick moment,” Dr Dharshini notes.

In the hospital, a quick blood test (your baby’s heel is pricked) will determine if your baby has jaundice. The doctor will decide if treatment is necessary based on the bilirubin level in his blood.

Could your breastmilk be causing your baby’s jaundice? Read on and find out!