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What is the Connection Between Breastfeeding and Jaundice?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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Breastfeeding and jaundice are connected in a unique way. Common jaundice, which occurs in over 60% of all newborns, is the result of excess bilirubin in the body, which results in the skin and eyes becoming yellow. Other than this common type of jaundice, there is also breast milk jaundice and breastfeeding jaundice. While these conditions are rare and typically do not require any treatment other than increased nursing, monitoring these breastfeeding and jaundice issues is important to maintain a newborn's health.

Breast milk jaundice has no known cause, although it is believed to run in families. The most common theory about this breastfeeding and jaundice connection is that something in the breast milk inhibits the breakdown of bilirubin in the infant. This does not mean that anything is wrong with the mother's milk or that breastfeeding needs to be discontinued. Breast milk jaundice occurs in a little over 2% of all newborns and usually resolves itself by the time a newborn is 12 weeks old.

This breast milk and jaundice issue is treated by regular monitoring of bilirubin levels and increased nursings. A minimum of eight nursing sessions a day is necessary; depending on the nursing style of the infant, this number may be much higher. As long as the bilirubin levels stay below 20 mg, no other treatment is typically needed. If levels go above this range, the infant may need to receive phototherapy treatments until the bilirubin reaches an acceptable level.

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Breastfeeding and jaundice are also connected by a condition known as breastfeeding jaundice. This occurs when the baby is not getting enough milk to flush the bilirubin out of his or her system. It can be caused by an improper latch, which hinders the baby's ability to completely drain the breast, rigid scheduling of feedings and, in rare cases, a lack of milk supply.

Breastfeeding jaundice is typically treated with the help of a lactation consultant or specialist. The consultant can aid the mother in determining if baby is latching correctly, receiving enough milk, and feeding often enough. Typically, offering the breast whenever the baby seems to want something, even if it just finished nursing a little while ago, is enough to increase milk intake.

As with breast milk jaundice, breastfeeding jaundice may need to be treated with phototherapy if bilirubin levels become to high. Occasionally, the mother may need to pump and feed the baby from a bottle, or offer formula, for one to two days in order to flush excess bilirubin from the body. Very rarely does a mom need to stop breastfeeding completely; pumping at the same time that the baby eats from a bottle can help the mother maintain her supply.

The stress of breastfeeding and jaundice can be overwhelming for both mother and baby. Breast milk is nonetheless almost always the best treatment for jaundice and can help the baby stay as healthy as possible. Working closely with the child's pediatrician and an experienced lactation consultant can help resolve these breastfeeding and jaundice issues.

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