Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes, is a very common condition in newborns. In fact, about 60 percent of infants get jaundice within several days of birth. It can occur when babies have a high level of bilirubin in their blood. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment produced during the breakdown of red blood cells.
Normally, bilirubin passes through the liver, which releases it into the intestinal tract. In newborns, however, the liver is often underdeveloped and may not be able to remove bilirubin from the blood. When there’s too much bilirubin in the blood, it can settle in the skin. This causes the skin and eyes to appear yellow.
Breast milk jaundice is a type of jaundice associated with breast-feeding. It typically occurs one week after birth. The condition can sometimes last up to 12 weeks, but it rarely causes complications in healthy, breast-fed infants.
The exact cause of breast milk jaundice isn’t known. However, it may be linked to a substance in the breast milk that prevents certain proteins in the infant’s liver from breaking down bilirubin. The condition may also run in families.
Breast milk jaundice is rare, affecting less than 3 percent of infants. When it does occur, it usually doesn’t cause any problems and eventually goes away on its own. It’s safe to continue breast-feeding your baby.
It’s important to note that breast milk jaundice isn’t related to breast-feeding jaundice. Breast-feeding jaundice only develops in newborns that struggle with breast-feeding and don’t get enough breast milk. Infants with breast milk jaundice, on the other hand, can properly latch onto the breast and receive adequate amounts of breast milk.
Any signs of jaundice in your infant should be checked by your doctor. They can make sure that there isn’t a more serious cause or underlying problem. Severe, untreated jaundice in newborns can lead to complications, including permanent brain damage or hearing loss.
The symptoms of breast milk jaundice often develop after the first week of life. These may include:
- yellow discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes
- poor weight gain
- high-pitched crying
Infants are born with high levels of red blood cells. When their body begins to remove the old red blood cells after birth, a yellow pigment called bilirubin is created. Typically, the yellow discoloration caused by bilirubin fades on its own as the maturing liver breaks down the pigment. It’s passed from the body in the urine or stool.
Doctors don’t know why jaundice occurs in infants who adapt well to breast-feeding. However, it may be caused by substances in breast milk that block the proteins in the liver responsible for breaking down bilirubin.
Breast milk jaundice can occur in any breast-fed newborn. Since doctors don’t know the exact cause of the condition yet, there are few risk factors associated with it. However, breast milk jaundice may be genetic, so a family history of jaundice in breast-fed infants might increase your baby’s risk.
A lactation consultant may observe feedings to make sure that your baby is latching properly and that your supply of breast milk is sufficient. A lactation consultant is a breast-feeding specialist trained to teach mothers how to feed their baby. A diagnosis of breast milk jaundice may be made if the consultant determines that your infant is latching onto the breast well and getting enough milk. Your doctor will then use a blood test to confirm the diagnosis. This test will measure the amount of bilirubin in your baby’s blood. High levels of bilirubin indicate jaundice.
It’s safe to continue breast-feeding your baby. Jaundice is a temporary condition that shouldn’t interfere with the benefits of breast milk. Mild or moderate jaundice can usually be monitored at home. Your doctor may tell you to breast-feed your baby more frequently or to give your baby formula in addition to breast milk. This can help your infant pass the bilirubin in their stool or urine.
Severe jaundice is often treated with phototherapy, either in the hospital or at home. During phototherapy, your baby is kept under a special light for one to two days. The light changes the structure of bilirubin molecules in a way that allows them to be removed from the body more quickly. Your baby will wear protective glasses throughout phototherapy to prevent eye damage.
Babies with breast milk jaundice usually recover with the right treatment and careful monitoring. The condition typically goes away after one or two weeks if the child’s liver becomes more efficient and they continue to consume adequate amounts of milk. In rare cases, jaundice may persist past the sixth week of life, even with proper treatment. This can indicate an underlying medical condition that requires more aggressive treatment.
Most cases of breast milk jaundice can’t be prevented. You shouldn’t stop breast-feeding if you’re concerned about your baby getting breast milk jaundice. You should only stop breast-feeding when your doctor tells you to do so. Breast milk is critical for keeping your newborn healthy. It supplies all the necessary nutrients and protects babies against diseases and infections. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding infants eight to 12 times per day for the first six months of life.