Jaundice, a common condition in newborns, refers to the yellow color of the skin and whites of the eyes that happens when there is too much bilirubin in the blood.
Bilirubin (bill-uh-ROO-bin) is produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells. Normally, it passes through the liver, which releases it into the intestines as bile (a liquid that helps with digestion).
Jaundice happens when bilirubin builds up faster than a newborn's liver can break it down and pass it from the body. Here are some reasons why:
Severe jaundice (when levels of bilirubin are high, usually above 25 mg) that is not treated can cause deafness, cerebral palsy, or other forms of brain damage. In rare cases, jaundice may be a sign of of another condition, such as an infection or a thyroid problem.
Doctors recommend that all infants be checked for jaundice within a few days of birth.
The most common types of jaundice are:
Physiological (normal) jaundice: Most newborns have this mild jaundice because their liver is still maturing. It often appears when a baby 2 to 4 days old and disappears by 1 to 2 weeks of age.
Jaundice of prematurity: This is common in premature babies since their bodies are even less ready to excrete bilirubin effectively. To avoid complications, they'll be treated even when their bilirubin levels are lower than those of full-term babies with normal jaundice.
Breastfeeding jaundice: Jaundice can happen when breastfeeding babies don't get enough breast milk due to difficulty with breastfeeding or because the mother's milk isn't in yet. This is not caused by a problem with the breast milk itself, but by the baby not getting enough of it. If a baby has this type of jaundice, it's important to involve a lactation (breastfeeding) consultant.
Breast milk jaundice: In 1% to 2% of breastfed babies, jaundice is caused by substances in breast milk that can make the bilirubin level rise. These can prevent the excretion of bilirubin through the intestines. It starts after the first 3 to 5 days and slowly improves over 3 to 12 weeks.
Blood group incompatibility (Rh or ABO problems): If a mother and baby have different blood types, the mother's body might produce antibodies that destroy the infant's red blood cells. This creates a sudden buildup of bilirubin in the baby's blood. Incompatibility jaundice can begin as early as the first day of life. Rh problems once caused the most severe form of jaundice, but now can be prevented by giving the mother Rh immune-globulin injections.
Jaundice usually appears around the second or third day of life. A jaundiced baby's skin usually will appear yellow first on the face, then the chest and stomach, and finally, the legs. It can also make the whites of a baby's eyes look yellow.
Most newborns now go home from the hospital 1 or 2 days after birth, so it's important for their doctors to check them for jaundice 1 to 2 days later.
Parents also should watch their baby for jaundice. Jaundice can be hard to see, especially in babies with dark skin. If you're unsure, gently press the skin on your baby's nose or forehead — if jaundice is present, the skin will appear yellow when you lift your finger.
Call your doctor know if you think your baby might have jaundice. The doctor might take a small blood sample to measure your baby's bilirubin level. Some offices use a light meter to get an approximate measurement, and then if it's high, take a blood sample.
Also call your doctor immediately if:
It is difficult to tell how significant jaundice is just by looking at a baby, so any baby with yellow eyes or skin should be checked by a doctor.
Most cases of newborn jaundice don't require treatment. Mild or moderate jaundice will go away after 1 or 2 weeks as the baby's body becomes able to get rid of the excess bilirubin on its own.
More frequent feedings of breast milk or supplementing with formula to help infants pass the bilirubin in their stools also might be recommended. In some cases, the doctor may ask a mother to temporarily stop breastfeeding. If this happens, pump often to keep producing breast milk, then start nursing again once the jaundice has cleared.
For high levels of jaundice, phototherapy — treatment with a special light that helps rid the body of the bilirubin — may be used.
If a baby has severe jaundice that hasn't responded to other treatments, a blood transfusion may be done.
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015
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