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There is nothing more exciting in life than seeing your child be born. It comes with hopes, fears, a bit of nervousness, and a lot of joy.  Most births go smoothly, but occasionally there are problems. Some are unavoidable due to genetics. Others happen from hospital errors and at times this leads to a birth injury lawsuit.

One rare, but very serious birth injury involves something called kernicterus.  To understand that though, you must know about jaundice first.

What is Jaundice?

Most people have heard the term “jaundice” in relation to newborn babies. Jaundice occurs when a chemical called bilirubin builds up in the baby’s blood. Bilirubin is a yellow substance your body creates when red blood cells break down.

When the mother is pregnant, her liver gets rid of the bilirubin for the baby; however, once the baby is born, his/her own liver has to remove the bilirubin. In some babies, particularly premature ones, the liver might not be developed enough to effectively get rid of the bilirubin. In these cases, the baby’s skin and whites of their eyes may appear yellow. Jaundice refers to this yellow discoloration.

Signs and Symptoms of Jaundice

Jaundice is common. About 60% of all babies have it. The main sign of infant jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, usually appears between the third and fifth day after birth. Jaundice typically appears on the face of the infant first, then it moves to the chest, belly, arms, and legs as the bilirubin levels increase. Jaundice can be harder to see in babies with darker skin color.

Symptoms of jaundice, aside from the change in coloring, include the baby:

  • being hard to wake up, or conversely, not sleeping at all
  • not breastfeeding or sucking from a bottle well
  • being very fussy, having high-pitched cries
  • not having enough wet or dirty diapers.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Jaundice

The baby’s doctor or nurse can check how much bilirubin is in the baby’s blood by using a light meter that is put on the baby’s head. If the level is high, the doctor or nurse will likely order a blood test. Typically, a small blood sample from the baby’s heel is taken to obtain a total serum bilirubin level.

Jaundice is easily treated. The baby will be undressed and put under special lights that do not hurt the baby. This can be done in a hospital or even at home. The baby’s milk intake may also need to be increased. In cases of very high bilirubin levels, a blood transfusion may be needed.

What is Kernicterus?

No baby should develop brain damage from untreated jaundice. However, this is sadly not always the case. When severe jaundice goes untreated for too long, it can cause a type of brain damage called kernicterus.  Affected infants may experience respiratory distress, muscle spasms (including those in which the head and heels are bent backward and the body bows forward), and diminished muscle tone.

As infants with kernicterus get older (about the age of 3 or 4), other symptoms may develop, including:

  • delayed motor development or abnormal motions
  • convulsions or seizures
  • muscle rigidity resulting in muscle spasms
  • slow, involuntary, writhing movements of the limbs or entire body
  • hearing loss
  • problems with vision
  • difficulty speaking

What Should I Do If I Suspect My Baby Has Kernicterus?

If your child has been diagnosed with kernicterus, or if you suspect that they might have kernicterus, you need to get with a top pediatrician right away. They will test for bilirubin levels and try to reduce them before brain damage becomes permanent in your child.  This is also done with light therapy.  It’s really important that the baby be treated quickly.  You can’t reverse the damage that has been done, but you can stop it from getting worse.

Finally, if your child does have kernicterus, you should speak to an experienced birth injury attorney. It’s possible the doctors or their staff dropped the ball and failed to prevent this often treatable problem from getting worse. Depending on whether or not any Federally funded doctors were involved, you may have as little as two years from the birth to file a lawsuit (up to eight years in other cases) so time is of the essence.

If you would like to speak to a lawyer for free to see if you might have a case, please contact us any time. All calls are confidential and require no commitment on your part.