Are you trying to breastfeed a baby with jaundice?
Did you know that almost 60% of babies experience jaundice? Some cases are just more serious than others. When your baby has severe jaundice, they are at risk for health complications like seizures.
Here’s what to do when you have a baby with jaundice.
What Is Jaundice
Jaundice is what happens when your body accumulates too much bilirubin. Excess bilirubin in the body can cause skin and eyes to look yellow. So what is bilirubin?
Bilirubin is a waste product that’s created when red blood cells are broken down. Red blood cells are constantly being broken down and replaced by new ones. In adults, bilirubin is easily excreted with the help of the liver. Babies livers aren’t mature enough right after birth so they have to excrete bilirubin a different way.
Babies have lots of red blood cells in their body before they’re born. They deliver oxygen to their body while they’re in the womb, but once they’re born the need for all those red blood cells goes away. Because your baby is able to get oxygen with breathing, they will naturally get rid of their fetal blood cells. When this happens, bilirubin is created and your baby develops jaundice. This type of jaundice is called physiologic jaundice – it’s normal and expected after birth.
Why Is Jaundice Bad?
When your baby’s bilirubin levels get too high, they could be at risk for seizures. Bilirubin is a waste product. When high levels of it accumulate in your baby’s body, seizures result. Baby seizures are very dangerous because they can cause brain damage and life-long complications.
Signs Of Jaundice
The main signs of jaundice in babies is yellowing of their skin and eyes. Look at your baby in a well-lit area and notice the color of their skin. You can press lightly on their skin and remove your finger. A sign of jaundice is their skin looking yellow where you pressed.
The easiest way to see jaundice is in your baby’s eyes. They will be noticeably yellow instead of white. If you notice your baby’s skin or eyes looking yellow, mention it to your doctor. Pediatricians should monitor baby bilirubin levels after birth.
Causes Of Jaundice In Babies
- Normal breakdown of fetal red blood cells. As I mentioned earlier, your baby naturally gets rid of unneeded blood cells after birth. The result is a normal case of physiologic jaundice. Usually your baby will have increasing bilirubin levels for 3-4 days, but it should resolve itself by 10 days after birth.
- Breast milk jaundice. If you exclusively breastfeed your baby, they might experience breast milk jaundice. This type of jaundice appears later, usually around 2 weeks after birth. The exact cause of breast milk jaundice is unknown but could be attributed to substances present in breast milk.
- Inadequate milk intake. Because your baby’s liver is immature, they have difficulty processing bilirubin out of their body. The way your baby compensates is by excreting the bilirubin through their poop. In order to poop, babies have to eat enough. So, severe jaundice can be caused by your baby not getting enough milk.
- Rh factor or traumatic birth. When your baby has extra red blood cells broken down, they’re at risk for higher levels of jaundice. If you have a traumatic birth that leaves your baby bruised, resulting in excess red blood cell damage, they may develop more severe jaundice. They may also have severe jaundice as a result of Rh factor differences between mommy and baby.
- Liver abnormalities. Your baby could have a congenital liver abnormality, infection or liver damage. If any of these things occurs in your baby severe jaundice can result. This is a serious consideration and likely found in the first few days after birth.
Treatment For A Baby With Jaundice
Feed Your Baby
The best thing a mommy can do for her baby with jaundice is feed often and enough! When you feed enough, your baby will poop more. Bilirubin is excreted along with poop so the more poop the better!
If you notice your baby has jaundice or it’s continuing to get worse (baby becomes more yellow), inform your pediatrician. They should be monitoring your baby’s bilirubin levels to ensure they aren’t getting too high. In some cases, breastfeeding may make jaundice worse.
This is only in the cases of inadequate breastfeeding. Sometimes breastfeeding starts off difficult. If your baby isn’t getting enough milk with feedings, then you may need to look into other options. Some pediatricians will suggest supplementing or pumping your breast milk to feed. Ultimately the most important thing to do is feed your baby.
Seek help from your pediatrician and a think about finding a lactation consultant to help you address breastfeeding issues. If your baby has jaundice, the most important thing is to talk to their pediatrician. If you notice your baby’s skin looks yellow and is increasing in severity, make an appointment.
If your doctor recommends supplementing, you’ll have to keep your milk supply up. Supplementing should only be necessary until the jaundice clears up. Breast milk is based on supply and demand so if you give formula but want to return to breastfeeding, you will need to pump to keep your supply up.
Bilirubin is also broken down with exposure to blue light waves. Phototherapy is an option for your baby if their jaundice is severe. They will be laid underneath a special medical light that gives off blue rays. Your baby will have their skin exposed to the light, and will have their eyes covered for protection.
If your baby has to do phototherapy, their jaundice is probably severe. It’s important to keep them under the blue lights for the majority of the day. This can be hard on a mom who wants to cuddle and have skin-to-skin with her baby. Your pediatrician will recommend phototherapy treatment if they think it’s necessary.
Lay In Sunlight Through Glass
If your baby’s jaundice isn’t severe enough for phototherapy, you still have an option for getting your baby blue light from home. If you lay your baby with their skin exposed through glass, the harmful burning rays of the sun will be filtered out. The blue rays from the sun will still hit their skin and help to break down the bilirubin.
Make sure that you lay your baby with glass between them and the sun. If the sun shines in a window, that’s the perfect place. Keep your baby’s eyes shaded to protect them. Just lay them in the sun for 10 minutes and then flip them over. Using a towel underneath them without a diaper allows more of their skin to get the blue light. Don’t overdo it, just 10 minutes at a time 2-3 times a day will be good. It may help decrease bilirubin levels.
Breastfeeding A Baby With Jaundice
MOST times if your baby has jaundice, you don’t need to do anything differently! Just breastfeed them as you normally would. In fact, if you can breastfeed them more that’s better! The more your baby breastfeeds, the quicker their jaundice will resolve. Breast milk is the best thing you can give your baby so continue breastfeeding and getting those cuddles.
If you suspect that your baby isn’t getting enough milk, talk to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant. A local lactation consultant will be able to weight your baby before and after a feeding to determine if they’re transferring milk.
If you supplement, make sure to keep up your milk supply. Otherwise, keep your head up! Jaundice is a temporary problem as long as it’s monitored by your doctor and you keep feeding your baby. You will get through it and back to breastfeeding without worry.
Kealy Hawk, BSN, RN, CLC
Kealy is a Registered Nurse, Lactation Counselor, and most importantly a mommy! Her own baby feeding struggles gave her a passion to help moms throughout their feeding journey. She specializes in breastfeeding support and evidence-based formula recommendations. To talk with Kealy or take one of her breastfeeding or formula classes, visit https://littlebearcare.com.
If you liked this article, check out these others: