Jaundice can occur in babies, children, and adults. Jaundice is not an illness in itself, but a medical condition in which too much bilirubin -- a compound produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin from red blood cells -- is circulating in the blood. The excess bilirubin causes the skin, eyes, and mucus membranes in the mouth to turn a yellowish color. Because bilirubin is processed by the liver, the symptoms of jaundice may indicate damage to the liver in adults. If the cause is not identified and treated, it can lead to liver failure.
In newborn babies, though, jaundice is common because they have extra red blood cells that begin to break down soon after they are born and their liver is often slower to process bilirubin. In otherwise healthy newborns, jaundice usually peaks at about three to five days of life and then begins to go away on its own. In breastfed babies, this is called “breastfeeding jaundice,” which is thought to be caused by inadequate milk intake. Another cause, although less common, is called breast milk jaundice, which usually isn't apparent until the baby is a week old and then peaks during the second or third week of life. It is caused by substances in the mother's milk that reduces the baby's liver's ability to process bilirubin. It does not require treatment, nor mean that the mother should stop breastfeeding.
Jaundice during the first 24 hours of life is not considered normal and will prompt your pediatrician to do some tests on your baby to look for the cause.
Newborns will often have their bilirubin measured before they are sent home from the hospital. If the level is too high, they may be placed under special "bili lights" to help them break down bilirubin. This is important, because very high levels of bilirubin can, although rarely, affect the brain in a condition called kernicterus.
If your baby is jaundiced when you are discharged, it is important to ensure that he or she is getting enough to eat and to follow up with the baby’s doctor. If you are having trouble with breastfeeding, be sure to discuss that with your doctor.
Jaundice in older babies and children is not considered normal. It can be a clue to problems with the liver, infection, or other illness,. If you notice it, you should bring your child to the doctor.