I vaguely remember that my seven-year-old son had a little bit of jaundice as a newborn. I clearly remember the heel prick blood test that made me cry as much as he did, but he never needed any kind of treatment, so the actual jaundice didn’t really register as something I should commit to memory. Despite tons of feeding difficulties, my second baby never had any jaundice at all.
When my third baby started to look a little yellow at four days old, I figured I knew what I was looking at. When she got very sleepy and didn’t want to nurse well overnight, I didn’t panic. I just called her doctor and brought her in first thing in the morning for a blood test. The nurse pricked her heel and sent us home, promising to call us with the results. Our doctor even gave us a special blue light to take home with us, “just in case.” She promised they would call and tell us how to use it if it came to that.
It never really crossed my mind to actually worry. I thought for sure this jaundice would play out like it did for my first baby. I figured she’d just get better on her own.
The doctor called us about an hour later and told us to immediately take our baby to the children’s hospital. She needed to be readmitted for treatment right away. I was shocked and terrified. The hospital? Immediately? Was she very sick? Was she going to be okay?
Our pediatrician told me to try to relax, and assured us that the nurses and doctors at the hospital would explain everything.
We rushed home to pack a bag, dropped our boys off with my mom, raced to the hospital, and started the process of bili light therapy for neonatal jaundice.
As it turns out, it was…pretty much no big deal. The nurse pricked her heel again (the worst part!), put a little blindfold on her, and laid her in a little bed with three blue lights called bili lights. The doctor told us most babies need 24 hours or less under the lights, and she would almost certainly go home the next day and have no future issues.
That’s exactly what happened.
Here are a few things I wish I would have known before I completely panicked.
1. Jaundice is super common, especially for babies who arrive a little early like mine.
Jaundice is actually a symptom, not an illness. It’s the name for the yellowish color that the skin or whites of the eyes take on when a baby’s bilirubin is high. Bilirubin is a pigment produced by “used” red blood cells. Sometimes, during the transition from life as a fetus to life as a baby, it starts to build up. A new baby’s liver just can’t always filter it out quick enough.
In adults, jaundice usually means liver problems, but that’s not usually the case for newborns. It’s just part of being brand new.
2. Dehydration can make jaundice more severe.
It only takes a few inadequate feedings for a newborn to start to dehydrate. I’m not telling you this to worry you. I’m telling you to make sure you know it’s something to think about. It’s not your fault, so don’t blame yourself. The doctor told us just a few milliliters too little at a few feedings in a row can be all it takes to make things worse if a baby’s bilirubin levels are already climbing.
3. So adequate feeding is the most important part of jaundice treatment.
The bili lights help break down the bilirubin so the baby can filter it out, but pee and poop are the only ways bilirubin can actually leave your baby’s body. That’s why feeding is the most important part of treating jaundice. I was hoping to breastfeed, and worried this would derail our chances, but it was totally fine. I had to pump and supplement with formula to keep my baby extra hydrated, but I was still able to nurse her, too. Once she felt better and wasn’t so sleepy, she went back to the breast without issue.
4. Most babies actually love the lights.
That’s good news because you have to leave them in there any time they aren’t eating. Sometimes they even have to eat in there. Our baby had her first feeding under the lights, then we got to take her out for 20-30 minutes every two to three hours. Surprisingly, she never cried. To be honest, I did. It was hard to put my brand new baby down after just a few minutes of snuggles. The fact that she was calm and happy made it a little easier.
Our nurses told us that they rarely encounter a baby who doesn’t relax within a few minutes. They put a little soft blindfold on the baby to protect their eyes and crank up the heat in the room. With everything warm, dark and quiet, the babies almost always settle right in for a nice nap.
5. Speaking of cranking up the heat, it’s probably going to be hot in there.
Any room where a newborn will be naked for 24 hours is going to have to be warm. I didn’t know that, and I dressed warmly because it was winter. I was miserable all night long. Our girl wasn’t awesome at maintaining her body temperature yet, so our room was between 82 and 85 degrees all night. I did not need fleece-lined leggings.
6. They’re going to have to prick your baby’s foot a few more times.
It’s the worst, and you’re both going to hate it. They have to fill a little vial with blood one drop at a time, and it sucks. If you need to step into the hallway for your own peace, don’t feel bad. It’s a lot, and the nurse has it handled. You can go right back in and comfort your baby when it’s over.
It’s really common for newborns to need a little help transitioning from the womb to the world. As long as you’re keeping an eye on it with your doctor, a bout of neonatal jaundice is very unlikely to cause any further problems.
If you find yourself headed to the hospital for a little blue light therapy, charge your iPad, grab a comfy pillow, dress for a warm night, and don’t panic. In most cases, your baby is going to be just fine.