Most babies in the neonatal intensive care unit of hospitals have one thing in common — neonatal jaundice. The ailment is caused by high levels of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during the normal breakdown of red blood cells. Jaundice is common in newborn babies because they have more red blood cells in their blood which are broken down and replaced frequently. Besides, a newborn baby’s liver is not fully developed, and hence, removes less bilirubin from the blood. By the time a baby is about two weeks old, their liver is more effective at processing bilirubin, so jaundice often corrects itself by this age without causing any harm.
Common symptoms may include yellowing of the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, dark, yellow urine (a newborn baby’s urine should be colourless), and pale-coloured excreta (instead of yellow or orange). The symptoms of newborn jaundice usually develop two to three days after birth and tend to get better without treatment by the time the baby is about two weeks old.
Diagnosis & treatment
Since most mothers and newborns are discharged within 72 hours of birth, it is most likely that you will be able to detect neonatal jaundice once you reach home. Bilirubin levels in a baby typically peak between three to seven days after birth. If you lightly press a finger on a baby’s skin causing that area of skin to become yellow, it is likely a sign of jaundice. Babies who develop jaundice in the first 24 hours of birth should have bilirubin levels measured immediately, either through a skin test or blood test. Additional tests such as complete blood count, blood type, and Rhesus factor (Rh) incompatibility may be needed to check if a baby’s jaundice is due to an underlying condition.
(The author is consultant,obstetrics & gynaecology, Columbia Asia Hospital, Pune)