There are many old wives tales that you will hear as a new mother. One of them is that it is bad luck to dress a newborn in yellow clothes. My own grand mother told me the same when I first became a mother. Obviously I struggled to find the sense in it but eventually my paediatrician (baby doctor) demystified it for me.
Apparently the reason we are advised not to dress the new baby in yellow is that you may miss the early signs of jaundice.
Jaundice is a medical condition with yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes caused by high levels of a chemical called bilirubin in the baby’s body. Before birth the bilirubin is carried out of the baby through the placenta, and into the mother’s blood. When a baby is born, the baby’s liver suddenly has to take over the work of getting rid of bilirubin and it can take the liver a few days to fully manage this properly.
Two or three days after birth you may notice that your baby’s skin has a yellow colour - this is called jaundice. Jaundice often develops in normal healthy babies in the first week or so of life. Most babies who are well and who are mildly jaundiced will not need treatment. As the liver matures, it will break the bilirubin into other chemicals that can be easily passed out through the gut.
My paediatrician says jaundice can be seen in about 60% of full term babies. It is even more common in babies who are born early or who are sick. While for most the jaundice will not last long (between one and two weeks), even without treatment some babies will need treatment for the jaundice.
Testing for neonatal jaundice
Since many babies are sent home within the first two days of life, the parents will need to watch their baby for any signs of jaundice. A simple test is to gently press your fingertip on the tip of your baby’s nose or forehead. If, when you lift your fingertip off, the baby’s nose the skin is white, there is no jaundice. If there is a yellowish colour, contact your doctor.
What you can do about neonatal jaundice
Babies with a moderate level of bilirubin may be a bit more sleepy than usual, and may not feed well. Encouraging them to breastfeed more often is usually enough to keep their bilirubin levels down. Why? Breast milk is best.
Light energy helps change the bilirubin that is just under the skin into a different chemical which is more easily passed out of the baby’s body (excreted). Putting a baby next to a window where there is lots of indirect light (not direct light from the sun) may be recommended.
If your baby still seems unwell (for example is not feeding well or has a fever), and is starting to look yellow, it is very important to have the baby checked soon. You can never be too cautious.