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Quick Facts

Jaundice in Newborns


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Dec 2019| Content last modified Dec 2019
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What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a yellow color of the skin and the whites of the eyes that's caused by the buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow substance your body makes when it breaks down red blood cells. A lot of bilirubin in the blood causes the skin and the white parts of the eye to turn yellow.

Jaundice is common in newborn babies. (Adults can get jaundice too, see Jaundice in Adults).

  • Jaundice happens when a newborn has too much bilirubin in the blood

  • Usually, mild jaundice happens 2 or 3 days after birth and goes away on its own within 2 weeks

  • Jaundice is common in newborns because they make more bilirubin than adults and have a harder time getting rid of it

  • Jaundice has many causes, some are serious and some are minor

  • Whatever the cause of jaundice, very high levels of bilirubin can harm your baby's brain

What causes jaundice in newborns?

The most common causes of jaundice in newborns are:

  • Normal development: Your baby's liver is still growing and doesn't get rid of bilirubin well—this jaundice usually gets better within a week

  • Prematurity: Your baby was premature, born before week 37 of your pregnancy

  • Breastfeeding: Your baby has trouble breastfeeding and isn't getting enough milk (breastfeeding jaundice)

  • Breast milk: Your breast milk has high levels of a substance that makes your baby's bilirubin level go up (breast milk jaundice)

  • Injury: Your baby had an injury during birth that caused bleeding under the skin (hematoma) and then breakdown of the blood in the skin raised the bilirubin level

Less common causes of jaundice in newborns are:

  • Infections and sepsis

  • Mismatch between the mother's and baby's blood types

  • Inherited problems with the baby's red blood cells or liver

  • Blockage of the tube that drains fluid from the liver into the intestine

  • Underactive thyroid gland (a gland that helps regulate many things in the body)

When should my baby see a doctor for jaundice?

If you deliver your baby in the hospital, doctors and nurses will check your baby for jaundice. If your baby is at home, go to the hospital if your baby's eyes or skin look yellow and your baby has any of these warning signs:

  • The yellow skin or eye color happened in the first day after birth

  • Your baby is 2 weeks old or older

  • Your baby doesn't eat well, is fussy, and has trouble breathing

  • Your baby has a fever

If your baby has yellow skin and eyes but no warning signs, call your baby's doctor.

With severe jaundice, bilirubin builds up in the baby's brain and causes brain damage. Such brain damage is rare, but the chances are higher if your baby is premature.

How can doctors tell if my baby has jaundice?

Doctors look at your baby's skin and eyes for a yellow color. They'll test your baby's bilirubin level by:

  • Doing a blood test

  • Putting a sensor on the baby's skin

To see what’s causing your baby's jaundice, doctors may do:

  • Blood tests

  • Urine tests

How do doctors treat jaundice in newborns?

Doctors will treat the cause of jaundice in your baby. Mild jaundice may not need treatment.

Doctors may have you:

  • Feed your baby more often, so your baby poops more often (this helps bilirubin leave your baby's body)

  • Pump rather than breastfeed for a day or two, if your baby has breast milk jaundice

If your baby has a very high bilirubin level, doctors may do:

  • Phototherapy (a bright, blue light is shined on your baby's skin to help break down the bilirubin)

  • Blood tests for a few days to check that the baby's bilirubin levels are going down

If phototherapy doesn't work, doctors may do:

  • A special type of blood transfusion called an exchange transfusion

With an exchange transfusion, a small amount of your baby's blood is taken out and replaced with donor blood. The donor blood has a normal level of bilirubin.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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