By: Victoria Gensheimer
On October 11, 1989, I gave birth to a 9lb. 13oz baby boy. He was my second child. He was healthy and took to breastfeeding like a pro. When he was 22 hours old, I was informed that his bilirubin level was 8, which meant he was jaundiced. Since this level was measured from the cord blood, they viewed that as being “high.” Treatment would require the standard photo therapy; keeping him under lights. Right before discharge, we were informed that his levels were still going up, so we were instructed to continue using the photo therapy lights at home along with daily heel sticks. After one day at home under lights, breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact, and sunshine his levels went up to 14. I could not understand what was wrong. These levels should have been down. I was told by the doctor on call that it was “breast milk jaundice.” I was told to quit breastfeeding and get formula at once. My instincts told me that was not correct. My regular doctor who delivered my son was also his pediatrician and he told me that we had an ABO incompatibility. Huh? I had never heard of that. He explained to my that an ABO incompatibility was a generally mild haemolytic disease in babies. Haemolytic disease means that the red blood cells break down quicker than they should and can cause jaundice and anemia. In order to diagnose an ABO incompatibility, it is important to know the blood type of both the mother and the father. The genes that a baby inherits will determine their blood group. Each group has its own specific antigens. My son was A positive as my husband was; however I was type O. Through childbirth, his blood came in contact with mine. Because the two different blood groups are incompatible, his immune system created antibodies that caused destruction of his red blood cells. Without a sufficient amount of red bloods cells, the bilirubin could not to break down in his system, leading to the anemia and jaundice. This was going to require more breastfeeding to help flush his system and more time under the photo therapy lights. I felt fortunate to be at home and not trapped in a hospital. The photo therapy lights came as a set complete with a small plastic bed that I was supposed lay him in, similar to what they use in the nurseries at the hospital. My husband and I found a way to disconnect the photo therapy lights from the plastic beds and brace them on two tables, which allowed us to then slide a rocking chair underneath the lights. With this homemade setup, I was able to hold him, breastfeed him, and still give him the time he needed under the lights. My husband and I took shifts sitting in the rocking chair while holding our son, which gave me time to rest when he wasn’t nursing.. His bilirubin count topped out at 17, and we were approaching the possibility of a blood transfusion if his levels became any more elevated. After 5 days of our “rocking chair photo therapy”, his levels started to decline. I feel certain that being able to hold him and nurse him while he was under the lights made a big difference. Having the support of my husband and the proper diagnosis from my son’s pediatrician helped ensure a good start to our breastfeeding relationship; a relationship that lasted 22 months.