Childrens Health

Jaundice in Babies: It’s Very Common So Why Does it Make Us Feel Like We’ve Done Something Wrong?

Saengtip and Tony have three beautiful boys, all born with jaundice – a condition in newborns that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.

Jaundice cleared up on its own after a week or two with their first two sons, so Saengtip expected the same with her third bub.

However, this wasn’t the case.

jaundice in babies
Little Leo experienced jaundice as a newborn. Source: Supplied

Leo was born four months ago and it was no surprise to his parents that he was slightly jaundiced. During their stay in the maternity ward, Leo’s bilirubin level [the yellowish pigment that is made during the normal breakdown of red blood cells] was measuring high.

Midwives tracked Leo’s levels daily but he remained slightly jaundiced. He was discharged with no further concern. However, after a week at home, his skin remained quite yellow and thus he was placed on “the lights” with a bill-blanket.

jaundice in babies - bili-blanket
Leo in his bili-blanket. Source: Supplied

It looked like an ironing board sans the actual board that hooks up to a battery pack that looked like a small vacuum cleaner. Leo had to be constantly on it for 24-48hrs.”

Watching our little ones hooked up to any sort of medical device can be distressing and, although mild jaundice in babies is incredibly common, we often put the blame on ourselves.

The lack of sleep and also having two toddlers home in the middle of Sydney’s lockdown while my partner is physically at work (in hospitality) intensified my anxiety around Leo’s jaundice.

I started to worry that what if he’s the exception and would develop the serious form of jaundice. My mental and physical health were still raw from childbirth and could not help feeling that I had failed in some way in my first week of parenting my youngest child.

Could I have taken more vitamin D, gone outside (in winter and in lockdown) more than I did, then I would resign to the fact that I couldn’t change any of that now.” 

It took Leo several hours in the bili-blanket and another trip to the hospital before he was diagnosed with “breast-milk jaundice”, a very common form of jaundice in babies. Leo’s jaundice completely cleared up by 3 months.

FACT: Mild jaundice occurs in 60% of full-term newborn babies and up to 80% of premature babies. Jaundice is usually harmless and disappears after 1 to 2 weeks.

However, this doesn’t stop the mum guilt from creeping up, especially watching your little one under the lights.

New mum Sophia Ramm admits that she felt absolutely heartbroken for her son when he was diagnosed with jaundice. It also left her completely confused. However, after a stint with a bili-blanket, her son is doing much better now.

jaundice in newborns
Sophia’s son under the lights. Source: Supplied

Another mum, Tiffany Nelson also shares her daughter’s experience. Bub was born at 34 + 1 week and spent 24-48 hours under the lights. Now she’s a cheeky toddler with all the energy in the world.

What causes jaundice? 

In most cases, the cause of jaundice in babies is simply the fact that newborns need to break down a lot of red blood cells. When red blood cells break down, a chemical called ‘bilirubin’ is released, which makes the skin go yellow.

The fact that a newborn’s liver isn’t developed enough to get rid of the bilirubin causes a bilirubin overload which leads to jaundice. By about 2 weeks old, a baby’s liver is more developed and better at removing bilirubin from the blood.

mum central
Tiffany’s daughter spent over 24 hours under the lights while in the NICU. Source: Supplied

Another reason is simply due to a chemical in our breastmilk that interferes with the removal of bilirubin. This is known as “breast milk jaundice” and, again, normally sorts itself out after a few weeks.

In rare instances, jaundice in newborns can be due to the mother’s and the baby’s blood groups being incompatible (usually ABO or Rhesus factor incompatibility. Another rare cause of jaundice in babies is biliary atresia which occurs when the tiny tubes that carry bile from the liver to the intestine get scarred.

What to watch for

The main thing to watch for is yellowing on your baby’s skin and in the whites of the eyes. It typically starts on the face and head. If the level of bilirubin increases, the colour will spread to the body.

Babies might also be drowsy and have difficulty feeding.

How is mild jaundice treated? 

You’ve probably heard the term “under the lights”. What this means is phototherapy treatment which uses ultraviolet light to help to break down the bilirubin overload. It involves the baby being placed naked in a cot under a blue phototherapy lamp for 2 to 3 days. The baby’s eyes will be covered for protection.

As Saengtip mentioned, many hospitals now use a bili-blanket, which is a portable phototherapy device.

So common, yet scary too

Tiffany, Sophia and Saengtip all shared their concerns about jaundice in their newborns on the Facebook page Pregnancy Mums Australia and were met with hundreds of comments of support and similar stories.

If your baby does have jaundice, just remember, it is very common, you haven’t done anything wrong and it won’t be long until bub will be off the lights and ready to take on the world!

What to read next

Avatar of Jenna Galley

Born and raised in Canada, Jenna now lives in Far North Queensland with her tribe. When the mum-of-three is not writing, you can find her floating in the pool, watching princess movies, frolicking on the beach, bouncing her baby to sleep or nagging her older kids to put on their pants.

Write A Comment