Jaundice is due to a buildup in the blood of bilirubin, a yellow pigment which comes from the breakdown of old red blood cells. It is normal for red blood cells to break down, but the bilirubin formed does not usually cause jaundice because the liver metabolizes it and gets rid of it into the gut.
The newborn baby, however, often becomes jaundiced during the first few days because the liver enzyme which metabolizes bilirubin is relatively immature. Furthermore, newborn babies have more red blood cells than adults, and thus more are breaking down at any one time. If the baby is premature, or stressed from a difficult birth, or the infant of a diabetic mother, or more than the usual number of red blood cells are breaking down (as happens in blood incompatibility), the level of bilirubin in the blood may rise higher than what is usual.
Two Types of Jaundice
The liver changes bilirubin so that it can be eliminated from the body. If, however, the liver is functioning poorly, as occurs during some infections, or the tubes which transport the bilirubin to the gut are blocked, this changed bilirubin may accumulate in the blood and also cause jaundice. When this occurs, the changed bilirubin (called conjugated bilirubin), appears in the urine and turns the urine brown. This brown urine is an important clue that the jaundice is not "ordinary". Jaundice due to conjugated bilirubin is always abnormal, frequently serious, and needs to be investigated thoroughly and immediately. Except in the case of a few extremely rare metabolic diseases, breastfeeding can and should continue.
Accumulation of bilirubin before it has been changed by the enzyme of the liver may be normal "physiologic jaundice". Physiologic jaundice begins on the 2nd or 3rd day, peaks on the 3rd or 4th day and then begins to disappear. However, there may be other conditions which cause an exaggeration of this type of jaundice, such as a more rapid than normal breakdown of red blood cells. Because these conditions have no association with breastfeeding, breastfeeding should continue. If, for example, the baby has severe jaundice due to rapid breakdown of red blood cells, this is not a reason to take the baby off the breast. Breastfeeding should continue.
There is a condition commonly called breastmilk jaundice. No one knows what the cause of breastmilk jaundice is. In order to make this diagnosis, the baby should be at least a week old, though interestingly, many of the babies with breastmilk jaundice also have had physiologic jaundice, sometimes to levels higher than usual. The baby should be gaining well with breastfeeding alone, having lots of bowel movements, passing plentiful, clear urine and be generally well (handout #4 Is my baby getting enough milk?).
In such a setting, the baby has what some call breastmilk jaundice, though, on occasion, infections of the urine or an under functioning of the baby's thyroid gland may cause the same picture. Breastmilk jaundice peaks at 10-21 days, but may last for 2-3 months. Breastmilk jaundice is normal. Rarely, if ever, does breastfeeding need to be discontinued even for a short time. There is not one bit of evidence that this jaundice causes any problem at all for the baby. Breastfeeding should not be discontinued "in order to make a diagnosis". If, however, your doctor feels that discontinuing breastfeeding is appropriate, it would be worth trying a lactation aid with formula (handout #5 Using a Lactation Device) rather than taking the baby off the breast altogether, since this may result in difficulties with breastfeeding afterwards.
If the baby is truly doing well on breast only, there is no reason, none, to stop breastfeeding or supplement with a lactation aid, for that matter. The notion that there is something wrong with the baby being jaundiced comes from the assumption that the formula feeding baby is the standard by which we should determine how the breastfed baby should be. This manner of thinking, almost universal amongst health professionals, truly turns logic upside down. Thus, the formula feeding baby is rarely jaundiced after the first week of life, and when he is, there is usually something wrong. Therefore, the baby with breastmilk jaundice is a concern and "something must be done". However, in our experience, most exclusively breastfed babies who are perfectly healthy and gaining weight well are still jaundiced at 5-6 weeks of life and even later. The question, in fact, should be whether it is normal not to be jaundiced and is this absence of jaundice something we should worry about? Do not stop breastfeeding for jaundice.
Higher than usual levels of bilirubin or longer than usual jaundice may occur because the baby is not getting enough milk. This may be due to the fact that the mother's milk takes a longer than average time to "come in," or because hospital routines limit breastfeeding or because, most importantly, the baby is poorly latched on and thus not getting the milk which is available (handout #4 Is my baby getting enough milk?). When the baby is getting little milk, bowel movements tend to be scanty and infrequent so that the bilirubin that was in the baby's gut gets reabsorbed into the blood instead of leaving the body with the bowel movements. Obviously, the best way to avoid "not-enough-breastmilk jaundice" is to get breastfeeding started properly (handout #1 Breastfeeding-Starting Out Right). H
owever, the answer to not-enough-breastmilk jaundice, is not to take the baby off the breast or to give bottles. If the baby is nursing well, more frequent feedings may be enough to bring the bilirubin down more quickly, though, in fact, nothing needs be done. If the baby is nursing poorly, helping the baby latch on better may allow him to nurse more effectively and thus receive more milk. Compressing the breast to get more milk into the baby may help (handout #15 Breast Compression). If latching and breast compression alone do not work, a lactation aid would be appropriate to supplement feedings (handout #5 Using a Lactation Aid).
Phototherapy (Bilirubin Lights)
Phototherapy increases the fluid requirements of the baby. If the baby is nursing well, more frequent feeding can usually make up this increased requirement. However, if it is felt that the baby needs more fluids, use a lactation aid to supplement, preferably expressed breastmilk, expressed milk with sugar water or sugar water alone rather than formula.
Handout #7. Jaundice Revised January 1998
Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC is a pediatrician, a graduate of the University of Toronto medical school. He started the first hospital-based breastfeeding clinic in Canada in 1984. He has been a consultant with UNICEF for the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative in Africa. Dr. Newman has practiced as a physician in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.
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