What Causes Jaundice in Newborns?

Jaundice in newborns, also known as neonatal jaundice, is a common condition that occurs due to the accumulation of bilirubin in the baby’s bloodstream. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment produced when red blood cells break down. In normal circumstances, the liver processes bilirubin and helps eliminate it from the body. However, in newborns, the liver is still immature, and this can lead to the development of jaundice.

The main causes of jaundice in newborns include:

  • Physiological Jaundice: This is the most common type of jaundice in newborns and occurs in over half of all full-term babies and about 80% of premature babies. It usually appears within the first few days after birth and peaks around the second or third day. Physiological jaundice is caused by the increased breakdown of fetal red blood cells and the baby’s immature liver, which takes some time to start processing bilirubin efficiently.
  • Breast Milk Jaundice: Some babies may experience jaundice due to substances present in breast milk that can interfere with the liver’s ability to process bilirubin effectively. This type of jaundice usually appears after the first week of life and may persist for a few weeks.
  • Blood Group Incompatibility: Jaundice can occur if the baby’s blood type is incompatible with the mother’s blood type, leading to the destruction of the baby’s red blood cells and an increase in bilirubin levels. The most well-known example is Rh incompatibility, where the mother is Rh-negative, and the baby is Rh-positive.
  • Liver Disorders: Rarely, newborns can have liver diseases or conditions that affect the liver’s ability to process bilirubin, leading to jaundice.
  • Infections: Infections such as sepsis or other conditions that affect the baby’s blood can cause increased breakdown of red blood cells and subsequent jaundice.
  • Metabolic Disorders: Certain genetic metabolic disorders can interfere with the normal metabolism and excretion of bilirubin, leading to jaundice.

Most cases of neonatal jaundice are mild and resolve on their own without any specific treatment. However, in some cases, particularly when bilirubin levels are very high or rising rapidly, medical intervention may be necessary. Treatment options may include phototherapy (using special lights to help break down bilirubin), exchange transfusion (replacing the baby’s blood with donor blood), or addressing the underlying cause of jaundice if it is due to an infection or metabolic disorder. If your newborn appears jaundiced, it’s essential to seek medical attention for proper evaluation and management.