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Have you ever seen or heard of a baby who appears yellowish, especially the first few days after birth? This is a common condition called jaundice, which affects as many as half of all babies and an even greater number of premature babies.

Although jaundice is common, high levels of bilirubin can damage a baby’s nervous system. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends scheduling an appointment when your baby is three to five days old to monitor for jaundice. If your baby’s skin becomes more yellow or if you notice a yellowing in the whites of your baby’s eyes, contact your pediatrician immediately.

Frequent feedings may help prevent jaundice by increasing the number of bowel movements. During the first days of life, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed babies be fed at least eight to 12 times per day.

What causes jaundice?

In our bodies, new red blood cells are continually being created while old red blood cells are being broken down and removed from the body. Bilirubin is a by-product that occurs when old red blood cells are destroyed. Typically, the liver helps break down bilirubin so it can be excreted in the baby’s bowel movement. But, if your newborn baby’s liver is not fully mature, this prevents the baby’s body from getting rid of the bilirubin. It’s the buildup of bilirubin in a baby’s blood stream that causes the yellow skin coloration called jaundice.

Typically, you will see the first signs of jaundice in the face and then in the chest, abdomen, arms and legs.

Jaundice also may occur when your baby’s blood type is different from yours. In this situation, your body may produce an antibody that breaks down your baby’s red blood cells, which may cause the level of bilirubin to increase in your newborn’s blood.

By the third day of life, jaundice levels usually peak and then gradually decrease. Your doctor can perform a simple test to determine if there is an elevated bilirubin.

Jaundice treatment

If your baby’s bilirubin level continues to rise, your pediatrician may order “phototherapy,” a special kind of fluorescent light that helps the baby breakdown the bilirubin so it can be passed out of the body. During this time, your medical provider will obtain Bilirubin levels at least once daily until your baby’s levels decrease and stabilize.