A Jaundice Story: Baby Boy #4 Turns Yellow

This is the first in a two-part feature on jaundice. In this post, I'll tell you Baby Boy #4's jaundice story, and in the next post I'll address jaundice from a more clinical perspective. Now that Baby Boy has been named, we'll call him Y.

At 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when Y was about 27 hours old, the nursery did a heel stick to draw blood for his PKU test. This is a standard newborn screening done at approximately 24 hours of age. At the same time, they checked his bilirubin levels to see if he was at risk of needing treatment for jaundice. Most people know jaundice as a yellowing of the eyes and skin due to various problems associated with the liver. In newborns, it's a relatively common condition due to the breakdown of excess red blood cells in the baby's body after birth. Most babies will clear out the bilirubin on their own without needing special interventions, but some babies will have bilirubin levels high enough to elicit concern, as very high levels of bilirubin may cause irreversible brain damage called kernicterus.

But back to Baby Y. When the pediatrician came in to check him over and report on his test results, the first words out of her mouth were, "Did any of your other kids have jaundice?" When I told her all three had, and two had required home phototherapy, she nodded. She showed me his bilirubin level, which was 8.6. For his age, this was considered "high intermediate risk". If the number climbed into the "high risk" zone, he would require treatment. The chart below is the standard risk chart for newborn jaundice. You find the baby's age in hours along the bottom, then plot the bilirubin level on the left and see what curve you fall along. A level of 8.6 in a 28-hour old baby was near the high end of the high intermediate risk zone.


The question then was, do we take a wait-and-see approach, or do we take it on more aggressively, knowing that (a) all three of his brothers had relatively high bilirubin levels, and (b) he was already nearing the high risk zone? Levels usually peak between 4 and 6 days of age and then fall off gradually. To clear out bilirubin, the baby needs to poop, which means the baby needs to eat. Since breastmilk supply doesn't usually increase until day 3, and most babies under 3 or 4 days of age are still clearing out meconium, it takes a few days for the excess bilirubin to be excreted. I was still only producing a small volume of colostrum, and Baby Y wasn't pooping much, so we knew his levels would continue to rise for another day or two, at least. But we didn't know if they'd rise sharply or level off. There's really no way to know what will happen in any given baby.

I had been planning to go home on Tuesday, though I was technically entitled to another night in the hospital if I wanted to stay. The pediatrician suggested that I stay Tuesday night and let Baby Y have jaundice treatment through the night. In this way, we might be able to bring down his bilirubin levels to the low intermediate risk zone and then, even if the levels continued to rise a bit for another day or two, they would likely stay on that low intermediate risk curve. If we didn't treat Tuesday night, we would need to monitor him closely (by taking blood daily to measure his bilirubin levels), and if his numbers rose into the high risk zone, then we would need to treat, which might entail readmission to the hospital for him, meaning I'd have to find a place to stay because I would no longer be an inpatient there.

This put us in a tricky position. On the one hand, I really didn't want to spend another night in the hospital. I wanted to get home to my other three kids, I wanted to come back to life and out of the sickly-feeling, "I'm in the hospital" mode. On the other hand, it seemed the easiest way to ensure that Baby Y's jaundice would be managed with the least amount of hassle. A secondary, but real, consideration was that if his jaundice became severe, his bris would have to be delayed. This had happened with our second baby, and we needed to know if that would be necessary for Baby Y. It seemed that treating him Tuesday night would stave off this potential complication as well.

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