Nursing moms may hear the term “jaundice” and cringe, but few truly understand it. Much of this could is the way that pediatricians often respond to breastfeeding jaundice. Some ask the mother to cease nursing so they can “prove” that the jaundice is being caused by the breastmilk and not some serious condition. This request, when paired with misinformation about what causes breastfeeding jaundice and why can cause some mothers to stop nursing altogether. At the very least, she may leave her pediatrician’s office feeling defeated and confused.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Truth About Breastfeeding Jaundice
Bilirubin is an antioxidant that breaks down heme, a by-product of iron, in the blood. Although high levels can cause serious complications, including brain damage, such issues are not typical in breastfeeding infants. In fact, jaundice in breastfeeding infants typically stems from one of two issues:
- The infant is not latching well enough and a lack of fluids is causing a buildup of bilirubin
- Bilirubin levels are rising because of the breastmilk.
While the first cause is a problem (one that can be easily remedied, by the way), the latter is not. In fact, jaundice caused by breastmilk itself typically clears up on its own. There is also good evidence to suggest that the increase of bilirubin from breastmilk could be beneficial.
Gilbert’s Syndrome, a condition in which the liver does not process bilirubin, can cause visible jaundice in otherwise healthy adults. It is also typically harmless and does not usually require treatment. However, there are some benefits for those that have it – namely the decreased risk of developing atherosclerosis – one of the leading causes of death in America.
Atherosclerosis is also thought to be an inflammatory condition. Because of this, one could deduce that Gilbert’s Syndrome may offer antioxidant benefits that reduce the risk of perhaps several inflammatory conditions. Moreover, this phenomenon has many experts questioning if breastfeeding jaundice could offer similar benefits to infants, so long as the condition is not being caused by a poor latch or a serious health condition.
Why Nursing Cessation is a Problem
Doctors who prescribe nursing cessation as a form of jaundice “treatment” are doing more than just offending mothers and leading them to believe that their breastmilk isn’t the perfect nutrition for their baby; they are also creating more issues for both mother and baby. Nursing cessation, even for a day, can jeopardize continued breastfeeding. Infants and mothers may also become stressed while trying to incorporate a bottle, and many infants struggle with formula at first – especially when they’ve been exclusively breastfed. Lastly, nursing cessation does not prove anything, except that the physician has not provided best practice treatment.
Poor Latch and Breastfeeding Jaundice
Although not all babies who have a poor latch develop jaundice, many who have persistent breastfeeding jaundice have latch issues. That means there are two areas of concern here for nursing mothers. First, one needs to know how to tell if their baby is nursing well and receiving enough milk. You can tell this by watching your baby’s chin (it should pause, which indicates swallowing). You can also check baby’s diaper for signs of trouble. Lack of fluid will cause darker and sometimes odorous urine, whereas a baby who is getting enough milk will have clear and odorless urine.
The second consideration is correcting jaundice that may be caused by a poor latch – and knowing how to tell if you’re experiencing a latch issue. Again, you can check baby’s diaper for signs of dehydration, but most often, you can tell by how your nipples feel. Nursing isn’t supposed to hurt. The initial “breaking-in” may be a little tough, but raw, especially sore, bleeding, cracked, or otherwise damaged nipples should not be an issue. If it is, you may be experiencing a latch problem. Get help! It can make a massive difference, and if your baby is jaundiced, it should correct the problem.
Why Jaundiced Babies Should Be Seen
It may seem pointless to take your baby to the pediatrician for breastfeeding jaundice if it’s either harmless or correctable but jaundice can be a sign of a serious health condition. Left untreated, it could put your baby at risk for brain damage. Thankfully, a physical examination and (depending on the situation) blood test can determine if there may be a reason for concern. However, parents should know how to talk to their pediatrician about jaundice – especially if their infant has it.
Talking to Your Pediatrician About Breastfeeding Jaundice
Parents who have a baby with visible jaundice need to educate themselves on the condition – what causes it and why. More importantly, know what questions to ask so that you can stay informed about the treatment process. For example, if your pediatrician suggests that you stop nursing, ask them to explain why. If their concern is a serious health condition, ask if there are any other ways to rule out such issues. For example, would it be possible to set you up with a lactation consultant so that your baby’s latch can be analyzed? Can a physical examination rule out any serious health conditions, or is there some other way to rule it out that does not include nursing cessation? If all else fails, get a second opinion or contact a lactation consultant for assistance.