Jaundice and autism: a connection?

A new study to be published this week found that newborns exposed to jaundice carry an increased risk of a psychological development disorder, such as autism.

The study, “Neonatal Jaundice, Autism, and Other Disorders of Psychological Development,” published in the November 2010 print issue of Pediatrics (published online Oct. 11), found full-term infants born between 1994 and 2004 who had jaundice were 67 percent more likely to develop autism.

Neonatal jaundice – usually a result of elevated bilirubin production – is seen in 60 percent of term infants.

The authors found the risk of autism was higher if the child was not the first born, or if the child was born between October and March. The risk for autism disappeared if the child was a firstborn child or was born between April and September.

The study concluded that seasonal differences, or different levels of exposure to daylight, which has an effect on jaundice, or infections, might be factors in the spike during those particular months.

The difference risk based on birth order could be due to different levels of antibodies in women who have had multiple pregnancies, or it could reflect different levels of access to health care in the first days after delivery.

In Denmark, where the study was conducted, women with healthy term newborns who have already had children are discharged soon after delivery. Women who deliver their first child typically remained in the hospital for three to four days.

Jaundice may be diagnosed while a baby is still in the hospital. Experts say that if a baby is not checked for high levels of bilirubin during the first 24 hours of life, a critical window, jaundice may go undetected and complications are more likely to develop.

This is especially important for those who give birth outside the hospital setting.

Find out more about the risk factors for jaundice and what parents should know even before baby is born from our RAK archives, February 2010 issue.

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