Newborn jaundice 

Introduction 

Yellowing of the skin is one of the main symptoms of jaundice 

Jaundice is a common and usually harmless condition in newborn babies that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. The medical term for jaundice in babies is neonatal jaundice.

Other symptoms of newborn jaundice can include:

  • yellowing of the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • dark, yellow urine (a newborn baby's urine should be colourless)
  • pale coloured stools (faeces) instead of yellow- or orange-coloured stools

The symptoms of newborn jaundice usually develop two to three days after the birth and tend to get better without treatment by the time the baby is about two weeks old.

Read more about the symptoms of jaundice in babies.

When to seek medical advice

Your baby will usually be examined for signs of jaundice within 72 hours of being born.

If your baby develops signs of jaundice after this time, speak to your midwife, health visitor or GP as soon as possible for advice.

While jaundice is not usually a cause for concern, it's important to determine whether your baby requires treatment.

Read more about diagnosing jaundice in babies.

Why does my baby have jaundice?

Jaundice is caused by the build-up of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow substance produced when red blood cells are broken down.

Jaundice is common in newborn babies because babies have a high level of red blood cells in their blood and these are broken down and replaced frequently. The liver in newborn babies is also not fully developed, so it is less effective at removing the bilirubin from the blood.

By the time a baby is about two weeks old, their liver is more effective at processing bilirubin, so jaundice often corrects itself by this age without causing any harm.

In a small number of cases, jaundice can be the sign of an underlying health condition. This is often the case if jaundice develops shortly after birth (within the first 24 hours).

Read more about the causes of jaundice in babies.

Who is affected

Jaundice is one of the most common conditions that can affect newborn babies. It is estimated that 6 out of every 10 babies will develop jaundice, including 8 out of 10 babies born prematurely (babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy).

However, only around 1 in 20 babies has a high enough level of bilirubin in their blood to need treatment.

For reasons that are unclear, breastfeeding a baby increases the risk of them developing jaundice, which can often persist for a month or longer. However, in most cases the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any risks associated with jaundice.

Treating newborn jaundice

Most cases of jaundice in babies do not require treatment as the symptoms normally pass within 10-14 days (although in a minority of cases symptoms can last longer).

Treatment is usually only recommended if tests show a baby has very high levels of bilirubin in their blood because there is a small risk in these cases that the bilirubin could pass into the brain and cause brain damage (see below).

There are two main treatments that can be carried out in hospital to quickly reduce your baby's bilirubin levels. These are:

  • phototherapy – a special type of light shines on the skin, which alters the bilirubin into a form that can be more easily broken down by the liver
  • an exchange transfusion – a type of blood transfusion where small amounts of your baby's blood are removed and replaced with blood from a matching donor

Most babies respond well to treatment and can leave hospital after a few days.

Read more about treating jaundice in babies.

Complications

If a baby with very high levels of bilirubin is not treated, there is a risk they could develop permanent brain damage. This is known as kernicterus.

Fortunately, kernicterus is very rare in the UK, affecting less than 1 in every 100,000 babies born. There were only three reported cases of kernicterus in England during 2012-13.

Read more about the complications of jaundice in babies.

Page last reviewed: 11/11/2013

Next review due: 11/11/2015

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