6.3 Does the baby have jaundice?
Signs of jaundice are a yellow discoloration of the skin and of the sclera (white of the eye). However the sclera is often difficult to see in newborns, so the skin colour is used to detect jaundice. First, ask the mother if she noticed any yellowish discoloration of the baby’s skin before it was 24 hours of age. Then look for yourself and also check if the palms of the baby’s hands and the soles of its feet are yellow. Jaundice is caused by excess deposits of a yellow pigment called bilirubin (the condition is also called hyperbilirubinaemia, ‘too much bilirubin’). It appears in the skin when too much haemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein) in the red blood cells is broken down, or when the liver is not functioning well and cannot deal with the bilirubin, or when the bile excretory duct is obstructed. (Bile is a substance produced by the bile gland which helps in the breakdown of bilirubin).
In untreated cases, the excess bilirubin will have serious effects on the newborn baby’s brain and can be fatal; if left untreated, it can have long-term neurological complications (complications related to abnormalities in the central nervous system, for example partial paralysis, growth retardation or learning difficulties).