Earlier this week, it was reported that Beyonce’s twins are in the hospital being treated for newborn jaundice. While Bey and I usually don’t have much in common, I can empathize with the struggle she’s going through right now. I’ve been there.
Both of my sons, born almost three years apart, were released from the hospital after birth only to be readmitted the next day for high levels of bilirubin. Most newborns will have some degree of jaundice, and the treatment is relatively non-invasive. But if left untreated, jaundice can cause serious, life-long complications for those affected.
After giving birth to my first son, jaundice was the last thing on my mind. I was desperate to sleep, desperate for him to eat, and dealing with a great deal of post-delivery pain. As my baby's skin yellowed, my exhausted eyes didn’t note the change. I noticed he was darker but, in my sleepy state, I simply wondered aloud how my husband and I – both very fair skinned – had given birth to such a dark baby.
My mother, who raised three kids as well and spent years working on the NICU floor of the local hospital, urged us to take my son to his pediatrician right away. As soon as the doctor saw my son, he drew his blood and let us know it was likely we would be going to the hospital. Two hours later, that’s exactly where we were headed.
Over the next few days my son spent in the box, blue and iridescent, I learned to nurse him more effectively, I learned how to pump, and I learned the pain of being a mother unable to hold her baby. Though I was aware throughout that our mini-crisis would likely have a happy ending, I felt gutted that I’d failed him as a mother and stupid for not realizing that he’d been in danger.
When we went home, I worried constantly about failing to notice something else dangerous. It took months to build up my parenting confidence. I was vigilant about my baby’s health and swore that if I had another child, I would do everything in my power to prevent jaundice.
My second son was born two weeks early, only a few hours after my water broke in my bedroom at home. He was big and hungry at birth, and I nursed him with the vigor of a mother who knows what can go wrong if a baby fails to eat. Though he expressed a clear desire to sleep through the night from birth, I woke him every two hours and did a weighed feed to ensure he was getting what he needed.
When my son never lost an ounce and had, in fact, already gained a few ounces by our discharge date, I thought we were out of the woods. Unfortunately, the day after returning home, I noticed the telltale darkening of his skin and eyes and took him to the pediatrician. I grabbed my overnight bag on the way out the door this time, already expecting a hospital stay. My little boy spent two days in the local children’s hospital before being discharged happy, healthy, and pink-skinned again.
Though it was unpleasant to return to the hospital with both of my boys, knowing what to look for and what to expect when it comes to jaundice made the experience far less scary the second time around. If you’re having a baby soon, check out the information below to prepare yourself for the potential of jaundice:
Who gets jaundice?
While any baby is potentially susceptible to jaundice, there are certain risk factors that make jaundice more likely. While the following characteristics don’t cause jaundice, they are associated with a greater risk:
• Premature babies
• Babies with a different blood type than their mother
• Large babies
• Breastfeed babies
• Babies with feeding difficulty
• Babies whose older siblings experienced jaundice
• Baby boys
If your baby has any of these characteristics, consider asking your pediatrician for a pre-discharge blood test to ensure that your baby’s bili levels are within the normal range.
What are the symptoms of jaundice?
The most obvious sign of jaundice is usually the yellowing of an infant’s skin and the whites of their eyes. Typically, parents, medical professionals, or another adult providing care to a baby note the yellowing of their skin and recommend follow up.
Babies are not born with jaundice. Rather, jaundice begins to develop in the hours and days after birth and may not be noted until a baby has been discharged from the hospital, so it’s important to remain on the look-out.
The symptoms that parents should look for include:
• Yellowing skin
• Yellowing eye whites
• Sleepiness or difficulty waking
• Disinterest in eating
• Lack of bowel movements
How is jaundice treated?
Jaundice is most often treated through phototherapy. Phototherapy treatment works by assisting babies in breaking down the toxic bilirubin in their blood. It usually includes a clear bassinet, a glowing blue light, and tiny little eye covers similar to what’s worn in a tanning bed.
While phototherapy in a hospital setting is often recommended for a jaundiced baby, pediatricians may try other options first. Jaundice is often treated by:
• Laying baby, unclothed, in direct sunlight
• Sending baby home with a phototherapy blanket
• Admitting baby to the hospital for intensive phototherapy
• Ensuring that baby is establishing healthy eating patterns