Can You Prevent Infantile Kernicterus?


Kernicterus is a form of brain damage which can affect infants shortly after birth. It occurs when the amount of bilirubin in the blood is too high.

While bilirubin is crucial to the processes of the body, too much is toxic to the body.

In fact, depending on the exposure of bilirubin to the body, the effects range from mild to life-threatening.

Today, we are discussing how, as a mother, you can prevent infantile Kernicterus.

What Causes Kernicterus?

There are two keywords to understanding Kernicterus: jaundice and bilirubin.

Jaundice is when an infant is born with a yellow tint to their skin as well as their eyes. Jaundice is caused by excess bilirubin.

Bilirubin is a yellow pigment which is created by the liver. In the late 1800s, Bilirubin went by the name haematoidin. Is is an extremely important compound to the body because it helps clear the digestive system of waste. It is created during the destruction of old, red blood cells.

Normally, bilirubin will leave the body through urine or stool. When this doesn’t happen, it leaves too much much bilirubin. An excessive amount of bilirubin is medically referred to as hyperbilirubinemia.

Hyperbilirubinemia causes jaundice and, if left untreated, can lead to brain damage and kernicterus.

In more rare cases, the dysfunction is also caused by a misfunctioning digestive system or even by an incompatibility between the mom and infant’s blood types.

What are the Symptoms?

Surprisingly enough, most babies have slight and temporary jaundice in the first 3-5 days of life. In fact, 60-80% of babies in the United States have some form of jaundice in their first week.

It occurs because a newborn infant cannot yet process excess bilirubin correctly. As a result, 3 days after birth a baby’s skin will turn yellow. This usually, however, goes away as the baby’s body adjusts.

If it does not go away, an infant’s skin and eyes will become more and more yellow. In this case, you’ll want to call a doctor as soon as possible. The longer the bilirubin builds up in the body, the more serious the effects.

How is it Treated?

Normally, a doctor will run a habitual physical examination. In addition, she or he will ask about the mother and the baby’s blood type. A difference between the baby’s and the mom’s blood type can be a cause of the health issue.

The bilirubin levels can be tested using a simple device which is pressed up against the skin.

If the bilirubin levels are above normal, the infant is then held under a bright fluorescent light which normalizes and treats jaundice.

The light is absorbed through the skin and changes the chemical makeup of the bilirubin. This change makes it easier for the body to process and eventually get rid of the bilirubin.

This phototherapy treatment can be done either in a hospital or at home.

If the condition is more serious, for example, it is caused by a blood type incompatibility, a blood fusion may be necessary.

How can you Prevent Jaundice and Kernicterus?

While smoking and drinking during pregnancy can have an effect on your baby’s health, other steps can be taken to prevent serious infantile brain damage.

The attention of a newborn’s mother and father are key to the prevention of jaundice or serious kernicterus.

In fact, if you notice your baby’s skin having a yellow tint, the best solution is to feed him or her to keep the body hydrated.

For those who are breastfeeding, you’ll want to feed your newborn at least 8-12 times a day or ever 24 hours. It is important to adhere to some sort of feeding routine and keep track of this.

Having food in the body will help the babies system rid itself of excess bilirubin. It ensures that your baby is hydrated which makes it easier for the body to produce waste.

Especially if the yellowing continues after 3 days, a doctor should be called immediately. If your baby has darker skin and yellow does not easily show, you can also check the whites of the eyes for yellowing.

Check your newborn baby’s skin every 2 hours. If you are not sure if your baby has abnormal jaundice consult your doctor.

Acute Kernicterus

If your baby has too much bilirubin, brain damage can occur rapidly. The beginning symptoms of acute kernicterus include the following:

  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Extreme sleepiness, and difficulties awakening baby
  • A sharp cry
  • Fever
  • Hollowing or arching of the spine (opisthotonus)

It is never too late to seek treatment for your baby. The faster the bilirubin levels are reduced, the better.

Some serious damage that occurs in cases of kernicterus includes deafness, eye movement limitation, physical handicaps, and/or staining of teeth.

Brain damage from kernicterus is considered in some cases to be a mild form od cerebral palsy. 

Some doctors have come up with a scale to measure the normalcy levels of bilirubin. One popular example is called the BIND scale which stands for Bilirubin Induced Neurological Dysfunction.

The scale goes from 0, or normal, to 9. A 9 is for the worst cases and signifies the need for immediate treatment.

A 0 level baby will sleep and awaken easily, eat normal amounts, and be generally very responsive.

On the other hand, a 9 baby will be extremely lethargic and unresponsive.

You can Prevent Kernicterus

Some worry that it is too late to treat kernicterus cases, but that is never true.

You can always prevent more damage from happening by seeking immediate treatment to rid the body of the bilirubin.

Being a new parent is scary, but your role is extremely important. Often symptoms of extreme jaundice and kernicterus will not show up until 3 or more days after birth. In others words, a baby will usually be at home, no longer under the supervision of doctors.

This is why is it extremely important for you to know the signs and what to do! Your hospital team should also have armed you with the right resources to spot when your baby’s behavior is not normal.

If you would like to read more on your legal rights as a patient or more on your duties in general, we encourage you to visit our blog by clicking here.