As many as 60% of full-term newborns and 80% of babies born prematurely develop jaundice that usually resolves within the first week of life. However, prolonged exposure to high bilirubin levels is neurotoxic and can cause lifelong developmental problems. Now new research suggests the condition may be linked to a higher risk for autism.
Babies with jaundice develop yellowish skin due to excess of the chemical bilirubin, which is a byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells. Most cases resolve within a week or two of birth. Breastfeeding But in very rare cases, jaundice can result in brain damage, cerebral palsy, and even death.
Researchers say they analyzed data on 733,826 children born in Denmark from 1994 to 2004, which finds a total of 35,766 children had been diagnosed with neonatal jaundice, while 1,721 were given a diagnosis of a disorder of psychological development during childhood. 532 children were later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
More Babies With Jaundice Diagnosed With Autism
“We can’t say from a study like this one that the association is causal, so parents shouldn’t worry that a child who has jaundice will develop autism,” she says. “It may be some genetic predisposition is associated with the development of jaundice and autism.” Rikke Damkjaer Maimburg, PhD, of Denmark’s Aarhus University School of Public Health
The study has helped increase understanding of the causes of autism, shaping the idea that there is a complicated range of factors at work, both environmental and genetic.
The Missing Link: VITAMIN D
So what causes high levels of biliburin in the blood of neonates? The likely cause is vitamin D deficiency. Exposure of neonates to daylight has been known to help jaundice. And exposure to daylight leads to production of vitamin D, thus increasing serum levels of this nutrient.
Prenatal vitamin D deficiency has been found associated with increased risk of autism, according to Dr. John Cannell, a vitamin D expert and director of the Vitamin D Council, who first proposed that prenatal vitamin D deficiency may be one of the causes of autism.
Dr. Cannell published his vitamin D and autism theory in 2008 in Med Hypotheses; his assertion is based on the following evidence:
1) Animal studies show that severe vitamin D deficiency during gestation led to dysregulation of dozens of proteins involved in brain development – additionally, rat pups born to vitamin D deficient mothers tended to have increased brain size and enlarged ventricles and other abnormalities similar to those found in autistic children.
2) Children with Williams Syndrome tend to have greatly elevated calcitriol levels in early infancy and they usually have phenotypes that are the opposite of autism.
3) Children with rickets associated with vitamin D deficiency experience symptoms that can be treated with high doses of vitamin D.
4) Estrogen and testosterone have different effects on vitamin D’s metabolism, which explains why boys are more likely than girls to suffer autism. (The current study found boys were more likely to have jaundice.)
5) Calcitriol, a metabolite of vitamin D, down-regulates production of inflammatory cytokines, which are associated with autism, in the brain.
6) Eating fish containing vitamin D during pregnancy reduces autistic symptoms in children.
7) Autism is more likely found in areas exposed to less ultraviolet rays due to latitudes, urban constructions, and air pollution all of which can increase vitamin D deficiency. Autism is also more likely found in dark-skinned people who are very likely vitamin D deficient.
Maimburg’s study suggests that neonatal vitamin D deficiency could be responsible for some cases of neonatal jaundice and autism. But the results of the study could also mean that prenatal vitamin D deficiency leads to an increase in the risk of autism in children with neonatal jaundice because babies who are vitamin D deficient may likely have experienced prenatal Vitamin D deficiency.
As a preventative measure, Dr. Mitch Carpenter at Carpenter Chiropractic concurs with Dr. Maimburg and recommends that pregnant women take 5,000 IU of vitamin D per day.
Newborn Jaundice Care
1) Early breastfeeding can have a positive effect on newborn jaundice. Colostrum speeds up the excretion of bilirubin.
The more breast milk your baby drinks, the better. Mother’s milk helps flush bilirubin from the baby’s system. (Giving water, dextrose or formula supplements on the other hand, interferes with milk production and will not lower the bilirubin level.) So, put your baby to the breast more often. Frequent short feedings are preferable to infrequent, longer feedings.
2) Expose your baby to daylight outdoors, keeping his feet, hands, head and liver warm.