What infant jaundice is and how you can treat it at home

Before I had children, I was under the impression that newborn jaundice was something that a baby got when something went wrong. It was another one of those things to worry about, but not something I should have been expecting. However, even the natural process of delivering a healthy baby can result in jaundice. It's not an uncommon complication that only pre-mature or sick babies get, either; in fact, as many as 60% of full-term, healthy newborns get jaundice within the first few weeks of life. This makes understanding what jaundice is and how to treat it at home particularly important information to all expecting parents.

What is jaundice and how can your baby get it?

Jaundice is a buildup of a pigment called bilirubin in your baby's blood that lends a yellow-hue to his/her skin and eyes. Mild cases may only affect your baby's face and barely be noticeable, while yellowing of other areas of the body, particularly the chest and eyes, can be indicative of a more severe case.

Bilirubin is produced when the body breaks down red blood cells. Normally, the liver processes and disposes of bilirubin, and during your pregnancy, your liver did this for your baby. However, once your baby is born, his/her liver may not be able to excrete the bilirubin fast enough, resulting in the buildup. This is why pre-mature babies, whose livers are less developed, are at a higher risk for jaundice, but aren't the only babies that can have it.

Jaundice can also be caused by bruising during the birthing process. A bruise is created when trauma causes capillaries under the skin to break, releasing red blood cells into surrounding tissue. To heal a bruise, the body breaks down these red blood cells, which creates bilirubin.

Other causes of jaundice in newborns can include genetic disorders, liver malfunctions, viral or bacterial infections, enzyme deficiencies, blood disorders, and an incompatibility with mom's blood type.

Breastfeeding is often cited as a cause of jaundice. Yet jaundice is more commonly caused by a lack of feeding than breastfeeding itself. Problems feeding, from breast or bottle, no matter the cause, can cause jaundice as the baby will urinate less and have fewer bowel movements to eliminate bilirubin from his/her body. Breastfeeding itself in rare cases can contribute to jaundice. In some infants, breast milk prevents a protein from forming in the liver that processes bilirubin. This form of jaundice, called aptly "breastfeeding jaundice" is thought to be genetic.

How can you help jaundice pass faster with home treatment?

In severe cases, your pediatrician should certainly be contacted, but in mild cases, jaundice isn't a concern and will go away on its own. In the meantime, there are some things you can do at home to reduce the duration of jaundice in your new baby.

Feed often: Whether you are breast or bottle-feeding, the more your baby eats, the more diapers you'll be changing, and those diapers will be full of bilirubin. If you are allowing free feeding, and seeing a good deal of output, so to speak, but your baby's color isn't improving, or worsens, you should contact your pediatrician right away.

Get some sun: While direct sunlight should be avoided, sunlight helps break down bilirubin. Striping your baby down to his diaper, and feeding in a warm, sunny window can often eliminate the need for light therapy, a treatment doctors will sometimes use on jaundiced infants. You can keep a blanket nearby in case your baby begins to get a chill.

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