Bilirubin is made naturally when the body breaks down old and worn out red blood cells. While still in the womb, the mother filters out bilirubin through the placenta. After birth, infants have to take care of it themselves.
Hyperbilirubinemia is also known as jaundice. It a yellowish tint to your child’s skin and eyes. It is seen in approximately half of newborn babies, usually during the first 5 days of life. Most of the time it is mild and usually goes away within a week or so.
A small percentage (around 8% to 9%) of newborns will develop severe hyperbilirubinemia. This is more concerning because it can lead to a kind of brain damage known as kernicterus if left untreated.
Jaundice occurs because your baby’s blood has more bilirubin than it can get rid of. This can happen because an infant’s red blood cells have a shorter lifespan and so are broken down at a higher rate. Bruising that occurs during the birth can lead to higher levels of bilirubin. Finally, the baby’s liver may just not be mature enough to filter bilirubin from the bloodstream to avoid the yellowish tint.
For the most part, jaundice is not a cause for concern. Physiologic jaundice is harmless and usually is seen at 2 to 4 days old. It goes away within 1 to 2 weeks.
Breastfeeding failure jaundice may occur in infants who are breastfed and is caused by not nursing well or when the mother’s milk is slow to start. Breastfeeding jaundice occurs most often in the first week of life. Late preterm infants (born at 34 to 36 weeks) are more susceptible because they don’t have the coordination or strength to breastfeed.
Breast milk jaundice is a separate type that appears after day 5, peaks during weeks 2 and 3, and may last at low levels for a month or longer. This type is thought to be related substances in the milk that increase reabsorption of bilirubin back into the bloodstream.
The symptom seen most often is a yellow tint to the skin or eyes. Your child may also be sluggish, cranky and jittery, have a high-pitched cry and may not suck well if you are breastfeeding.
Many times, the yellow tint may not appear until you and your child are already home. Although it is usually not an emergency, you should make arrangements to see your baby’s primary care doctor quickly.
Testing for jaundice may occur while your baby is still in the hospital. Although there is some controversy over the effectiveness of in-hospital screening with no risk factors, many hospitals check total bilirubin levels on all babies about 24 hours after birth.
To avoid unnecessary pain and stress to the baby, hospitals use probes that estimate the bilirubin level just by touching the skin. High readings are confirmed with blood tests.
One of the tests routinely ordered measures total serum bilirubin (TSB). Although often used for follow-up testing following screening, it can also be used as a first-line test.
Because your baby’s veins are extremely small and damage easily, the sample will usually be obtained by sticking the heel. After processing in the laboratory, a report is issued telling the treatment team how much total bilirubin is circulating in the blood. Your baby’s doctor will look at these levels to see if there is any reason for concern.
If a diagnosis of hyperbilirubinemia is made, this test is likely to be repeated. It tracks whether the TSB level is going up or down. It helps tell the team if treatment is needed and if treatment is working.
Other tests that may be considered include:
Any additional testing that takes place will vary from one baby to another. What is done will depend on what the doctor suspects is causing the excess destruction of red blood cells.
For most babies with hyperbilirubinemia, the main treatment will be watching and waiting. The majority of the time, the problem will resolve as your baby gets used to living on its own outside of the womb.
When deciding if more active treatment is needed, the doctor and your baby’s treatment team will compare bilirubin levels to see if, and how fast, they are rising. Whether your baby was born early is considered because lower bilirubin levels are treated. Treatment will be started if the bilirubin level is too high or is rising too quickly.
Your doctor may prescribe a light-emitting blanket or neck ring as an alternative and/or additional treatment for your baby’s jaundice. This system uses fiberoptics and represents advanced technology in phototherapy treatment given in the hospital or at home.
This covered fiberoptic pad is placed directly against your baby to bathe the skin in light. The blanket can be used 24 hours a day to provide continuous treatment if prescribed by your doctor. With this convenient form of phototherapy, your child can be diapered, clothed, held and nursed during treatment at home. A nurse will be available to help you set up the therapy, answer any questions you may have and do daily in-home follow-up visits.
While this will work much of the time, the bilirubin level might continue to rise. Your baby may need to be readmitted to the hospital for more intensive therapy.
In the most severe (and fortunately relatively rare) cases, an exchange blood transfusion may be needed. This replaces the baby’s blood with fresh blood from a donor.
If the baby has a different blood type from the mother, the infant’s blood may be carrying antibodies from the mom that break down the baby’s red blood cells. A transfusion of immunoglobulin can reduce the level of antibodies. This, in turn, decreases the jaundice and may make an exchange transfusion unnecessary.
Hyperbilirubinemia is an excess buildup that occurs of a substance called bilirubin in the body. When bilirubin deposits build up in your baby's body your baby develops jaundice, a yellow color to the skin and the whites of the eyes.
As many as 50 percent of all healthy newborns will develop jaundice caused by hyperbilirubinemia in the first few weeks after birth.
Hyperbilirubinemia is caused by the inadequate elimination of bilirubin, which is an end product in the lifecycle of a red blood cell.
Jaundice or yellow skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes, bruising, weight loss.
Your doctor can diagnose hyperbilirubinemia by a physical exam, blood tests and sometimes, by X-rays.
No treatment is needed for physiologic or mild hyperbilirubinemia. Increased feeding helps jaundice caused by inadequate feeding and dehydration. Doctors use a special type of blue light to treat for severe jaundice. This treatment helps prevent toxicity caused by very high levels of bilirubin. Your doctor might order blood transfusions or antibiotics to treat hemolytic disease illnesses that can cause jaundice.
Breastfed infants have a higher risk for developing hyperbilirubinemia. Newborns between two days and a few weeks old are most likely to develop jaundice. Infants who have blood-type incompatibility with their mother are more likely to develop hyperbilirubinemia and underlying hemolytic disease.