Neonatal jaundice is a yellowish discoloration of the white part of the eyes and skin in a newborn baby due to high bilirubin levels. Other symptoms may include excess sleepiness or poor feeding. Complications may include seizures, cerebral palsy, or kernicterus. It has been suggested that bilirubin uptake in the gut (enterohepatic circulation) is increased in breast fed babies, possibly as the result of increased levels of epidermal growth factor (EGF) in breast milk. Breast milk also contains glucoronidase which will increase deconjugation and enterohepatic recirculation of bilirubin.
In many cases there is no specific underlying disorder (physiologic). In other cases it results from red blood cell breakdown, liver disease, infection, hypothyroidism, or metabolic disorders (pathologic). A bilirubin level more than 34 μmol/l (2 mg/dL) may be visible. Concerns, in otherwise healthy babies, occur when levels are greater than 308 μmol/L (18 mg/dL), jaundice is noticed in the first day of life, there is a rapid rise in levels, jaundice lasts more than two weeks, or the baby appears unwell. In those with concerning findings further investigations to determine the underlying cause are recommended.
The need for treatment depends on bilirubin levels, the age of the child, and the underlying cause. Treatments may include more frequent feeding, phototherapy, or exchange transfusions. In those who are born early more aggressive treatment tends to be required. Physiologic jaundice generally lasts less than seven days. The condition affects over half of babies in the first week of life. Of babies that are born early about 80% are affected.
First, at birth, the gut is sterile, and normal gut flora takes time to establish. The bacteria in the adult gut convert conjugated bilirubin to stercobilinogen which is then oxidized to stercobilin and excreted in the stool. In the absence of sufficient bacteria, the bilirubin is de-conjugated by brush border β-glucuronidase and reabsorbed. This process of re-absorption is called enterohepatic circulation.