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"Why are my baby's eyeballs yellow?" is usually the first question for anyone who happens to have a baby with jaundice. That was my first thought with Daniel, my first yellow baby, while we were still in the hospital, two days postpartum. I made a mental note to ask the next doctor or nurse who came in to check on us.
A nurse eventually made an appearance, to massage my uterus (ouch!). When I caught my breath, I said, trying to sound calm, "Ummm, this is weird, but I think my baby looks funny. His skin is a little orange and his eyes are yellow."
She, with genuine calm, said, "Oh. Well, he might have a touch of jaundice. I'll order a heel poke," and walked out – as if having a baby with neon eyes was totally normal, and like I even had a clue what a "heel poke" was.
A few moments later, another nurse came in with a little heat pad, which she strapped to my baby's foot, and a lancet to poke his heel with (very similar to the ones they use for finger pricks).
This new nurse filled me in a bit more. She made sure I knew what jaundice is (a buildup of bilirubin in the baby's blood). She said that treating jaundice was usually no biggie, involving lots of feeding, monitoring (more heel pokes), and perhaps ultraviolet-light (bili lights) treatments. She also alerted me that the biggest effect of jaundice on babies (besides the yellow eyes and skin) is that they may seem to be more lethargic.
Because Daniel developed jaundice pretty early and had high bili levels, his case was considered moderate to severe, so the doctors prescribed the light therapy. Most modern hospitals have portable bili-light stations and do the treatment right in the mother's room. Since Daniel had other health complications, they gave him his treatments in the nursery or NICU.
Light therapy involves what looks like a tiny little tanning bed. (Can you tell I grew up in the '90s?) They put goggles on the baby and fire it up, and it looks so relaxing. The blue light that comes from the machine breaks down the built-up bilirubin to be pooped or peed out.
You'd be surprised at how effective those lights are. Daniel only had a few treatments and, although his bilirubin levels continued to fluctuate, that was enough to set him on the right path.
Still, his jaundice lingered, but I learned that's normal. According to the experts, jaundice can hang around for months.
By the time my second son came along, jaundice was a distant memory, so when he started developing those darn yellow eyes, I sighed and thought, let's get this over with.
It turns out babies born before 38 weeks are a bit more susceptible to jaundice. Some breastfed babies get jaundice if they don't get enough milk to produce the volume of waste needed to excrete the excess bilirubin. Babies are also more likely to have jaundice if one of their siblings had jaundice.
Not-so-luckily for me, all my children were born between 36 and 37 weeks, and with Daniel setting the precedent, it was no surprise that all five of my kids ended up developing jaundice. After my second and third babies had it, I found myself fully trained in assessing skin pigmentation and was not at all shocked when the fourth and fifth also developed carrot-colored complexions.
I am a yellow baby expert.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.