Neonatal jaundice is the yellowing of the skin or eyes of a baby less than a month old. It is a common problem and a cause of concern for women who have just given birth. The yellow eye colour is due to the build-up of a waste product in the body called bilirubin. Although most cases are due to normal changes in the newborn’s body, jaundice in newborns can be very dangerous. When bilirubin is very high in the blood of newborns, it can cause permanent brain damage.
Jaundice in newborns may be due to normal changes after birth or the following:
- Blood group mismatch between mother and child.
- Bleeding inside the baby's body.
- Abnormal red blood cells due to sickle cell disease or a deficiency of G6PD (an enzyme helps red blood cells work correctly).
- Obstruction of the flow of bile.
- Blood infection or sepsis.
- Other infections like herpes or rubella.
You should always visit your health provider when your newborn shows signs of jaundice. However, the following may suggest a severe disease:
- Jaundice on the first day of birth.
- Jaundice that lasts for more than the first two weeks after birth.
- A baby has shrill or high-pitched cry.
- Problems feeding the baby or when the baby does not gain enough weight.
- When the baby has pale stools and dark pee.
The following will help to prevent jaundice in your newborn baby:
- Breastfeed your child early and regularly. Ensure that your baby is sucking correctly and eating enough (8-10 times during the day).
- Attend antenatal clinics early during your pregnancy and ensure that you have all the tests that are required.
- If your blood type is rhesus negative, you may need to use certain medicines during your pregnancy and for 72 hours after delivery to prevent complications in future pregnancies. You may also be prescribed these medicines after miscarriages or bleeding during pregnancy.
You cannot treat jaundice at home. Visit your healthcare provider immediately when your child has jaundice. Early treatment is the only way to prevent brain damage. Do not use herbs to cure jaundice.
Treatment of jaundice in newborns usually involves reducing the amount of bilirubin in the blood and also treating the cause. These options include:
- Phototherapy: the use of a special blue-green light. The baby is placed under this light with only their eyes and genitals covered.
- Blood transfusion: the healthcare provider removes blood gradually from the baby and replaces it with blood from a donor.
- Antibiotics to treat infections.
- Thyroid hormone medicine to treat hypothyroidism.
- Surgery to treat blocked bile ducts.
- Severely ill children may be kept in an incubators to monitor them and control their body temperature.
- Where jaundice is due to a blood mismatch, intravenous immunoglobulins can reduce the destruction of the baby's red cells. However, this treatment is expensive.
In many cases, neonatal jaundice is harmless but, you should see your healthcare provider so that they can test for serious causes. Early treatment is critical to preventing brain damage.
Exposing your baby to the sun or giving the child pawpaw water will not help to treat jaundice.
If you have older children that had jaundice as babies, then your newborn babies are also likely to have jaundice.