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Birth Injuries & Infant Kernicterus

Every parent dreams of bringing a happy, healthy baby home from the hospital. Many times, their wish comes true. But sadly, not all families are as fortunate. Sources say that six out of every 1,000 babies born in the United States each year suffer from a traumatic birth injury. Kernicterus is one of them.

Kernicterus is a life-threatening neurological syndrome that occurs in some newborns with jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin that occurs when there are high levels of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a pigment that occurs naturally in the body as it breaks down red blood cells and passes through the liver. But when the levels of bilirubin get too high, it can cause jaundice, which may then cause kernicterus.

According to neurologists, timing is everything when it comes to treating infants with kernicterus. In advanced stages, the disorder can lead to permanent brain damage, spasticity, deafness and, many times, death.

If you believe your baby has kernicterus due to negligence by a medical practitioner, contact the birth injury lawyers at The Stroble Law Firm, P.C. We have extensive experience evaluating birth trauma and identifying all the contributing factors and potential defendants.

Kernicterus and Your Baby

Sixty percent of infants born in the U.S. have jaundice, but not all of them develop kernicterus. While in utero, the baby’s bilirubin is disposed of through the mother’s liver. Once born, a healthy baby should be able to get rid of the excess bilirubin through his or her own liver and excrete it in the stool. The danger arises when the newborn is unable to do that.

Kernicterus results when the bilirubin level gets so high that it leaks out of the blood and into the brain tissue. That’s when brain damage begins – and if it goes untreated or improperly treated, the results can be devastating.


Kernicterus usually develops between the first and third week of life. The National Institute of Health classifies kernicterus in three stages, based on the degree of severity:

Early stage: In its earliest phase, babies with kernicterus may have extreme jaundice, an absent startle reflex, poor breastfeeding or weak sucking, and extreme sleepiness.

Mid-stage: Newborns in the middle phase may have a high-pitched cry, abnormal muscle tone or seem “floppy,” an arched back with neck hyperextended backwards, bulging fontanel (soft spot) or seizures.

Late stage: Full-blown kernicterus may manifest in high-frequency hearing loss, mental retardation, muscle rigidity, speech problems, seizures and other disorders.


Babies with jaundice can be treated effectively. Some neurologists recommend that, at a minimum, babies should be checked for jaundice every 8-12 hours during their first 48 hours of life. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that infants demonstrating the first signs of jaundice should have their bilirubin levels measured within 24 hours.

Bilirubin levels in the blood typically peak when newborns are 3-5 days old, so the Academy also urges parents to schedule follow-up appointments with their infants within a few days of being discharged from the hospital.

Once kernicterus has been diagnosed, several treatment options may be considered:

Phototherapy: One of the most common treatments for infant jaundice and kernicterus is exposure to special lights, which changes the bilirubin into a non-toxic form that can be eliminated. If your physician suspects high levels of bilirubin in your newborn’s blood, ask that your baby be put under the lights regardless of whether the lab has returned blood levels or not.

Sufficient feedings and hydration: Bilirubin is excreted through the stool. Undernourished babies may not be producing enough stool to keep the levels low enough in the blood.

Exchange transfusion: Blood transfusions may be necessary to treat your baby for kernicterus, particularly if phototherapy is unavailable or isn’t expected to control the bilirubin levels adequately.

Mistakes Doctors Make

Dr. Steven Shapiro, a pediatric neurologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, says doctors may make the following mistakes when treating infants for high bilirubin levels:

  • Not examining the baby for acute signs of kernicterus.
  • Not believing the bilirubin level returned from the lab and delaying treatment until a repeat test is performed.
  • Delaying treatment or interrupting phototherapy for testing to determine the risks for a transfusion. The lights should stay with the baby at all times, according to Shapiro.
  • Using the indirect (or unconjugated) bilirubin level instead of the serum level to make treatment decisions.
  • Allowing bilirubin to reach potentially dangerous levels.
  • Failing to compare bilirubin levels against hourly norms developed based on the age of the baby.

Contact Our Birth Injury Lawyers Today

Michigan Injury Lawyers is a full service law firm with a team of knowledgeable personal injury attorneys who are committed to obtaining the best possible financial results for our clients. Our birth injury attorneys have extensive experience in Michigan medical malpractice claims.

If you believe that you or a family member has suffered a birth-related injury, you may have grounds for a legal claim against the medical provider. Michigan Injury Lawyers represents victims of medical malpractice throughout the state. We have helped many victims in Michigan recover what was rightfully theirs. We can help you and your family too.

Based in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan Injury Lawyers represents clients across Michigan. Call us at 313-438-4357, for an evaluation of your claim.