Jaundice is a problem often seen in Kentucky newborns. About 60 percent of babies born in the United States develop jaundice shortly after birth. The yellow that begins in a baby’s skin or tints the whites of his eyes is a warning: Get him to a doctor…fast!
Bilirubin is a chemical in the body that is removed by the liver. When a baby is in the womb, the mother’s liver gets rid of bilirubin for him. Once the baby is born, his liver has to take over this function.
The baby’s level of bilirubin peaks at around 3 to 5 days after birth. If a baby’s liver has not developed to the degree that it can effectively remove the bilirubin from his blood, jaundice occurs.
The Yellow Flag
One of the first signs of jaundice is a yellowing that begins on the face and moves down the body as the level of bilirubin builds in the baby’s bloodstream. As described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the baby’s face, particularly the whites of his eyes, take on a yellowish tint, which spreads to his chest, abdomen, arms, and legs. This yellowing may be more difficult to see in darker-skinned infants.
Other indications of jaundice include when the baby is
- difficult to awaken or will not sleep at all;
- extremely fussy;
- not nursing or sucking well from a bottle; or
- not soiling or wetting enough diapers.
It’s time to get your baby to the emergency room if she displays the following symptoms:
- She cries inconsolably or her cries are high pitched.
- Her body is arched, with her head and heels bent backward and her body forward.
- Her body is stiff, limp, or floppy.
- She displays unusual eye movements.
Diagnosing and Treating High Bilirubin Levels
After the baby is born, if a medical professional has not ordered a jaundice bilirubin test, parents should request one. The first test will probably be performed by placing a light meter on the baby’s head to get a transcutaneous bilirubin (TcB) level. If the level is high, the doctor will probably run a total serum bilirubin (TSB) test by taking a small blood sample from the baby’s heel. If the blood test reveals a high bilirubin level, the doctor will probably begin treatment for jaundice immediately.
Treatment entails undressing the baby, putting an eye shield on him, and placing him under special lights, which are not harmful. To ensure that the baby receives enough to eat, he will be bottle- or breastfed 8 to 12 times a day during the first few days. If his bilirubin level was very high, the doctor may order a blood transfusion.
If left untreated for too long, jaundice can spread from the bloodstream to the brain, causing a form of brain damage called kernicterus.
Repercussions of Delayed Treatment
When bilirubin reaches the brain, causing kernicterus, the infant may develop these problems:
- athetoid cerebral palsy;
- hearing loss;
- vision problems;
- tooth problems; and
- mental disabilities.
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