Speak to your midwife, health visitor or GP if your baby develops jaundice. They'll be able to assess whether treatment is needed.
Treatment is usually only needed if your baby has high levels of a substance called bilirubin in their blood, so tests need to be carried out to check this.
See diagnosing jaundice in babies for more information about the tests used.
Most babies with jaundice do not need treatment because the level of bilirubin in their blood is found to be low.
In these cases, the condition usually gets better within 10 to 14 days and will not cause any harm to your baby.
If treatment is not needed, you should continue to breastfeed or bottle feed your baby regularly, waking them up for feeds if necessary.
If your baby's condition gets worse or does not disappear after 2 weeks, contact your midwife, health visitor or GP.
Newborn jaundice can last longer than 2 weeks if your baby was born prematurely or is solely breastfed. It usually improves without treatment.
But further tests may be recommended if the condition lasts this long, to check for any underlying health problems.
If your baby's jaundice does not improve over time, or tests show high levels of bilirubin in their blood, they may be admitted to hospital and treated with phototherapy or an exchange transfusion.
These treatments are recommended to reduce the risk of a rare but serious complication of newborn jaundice called kernicterus, which can cause brain damage.
Phototherapy is treatment with a special type of light (not sunlight).
It's sometimes used to treat newborn jaundice by making it easier for your baby's liver to break down and remove the bilirubin from your baby's blood.
Phototherapy aims to expose your baby's skin to as much light as possible.
Your baby will be placed under a light either in a cot or incubator with their eyes covered.
It will usually be stopped for 30 minutes so you can feed your baby, change their nappy and give them a cuddle.
If your baby's jaundice does not improve, intensified phototherapy may be offered.
This involves increasing the amount of light used or using another source of light, such as a light blanket, at the same time.
Treatment cannot be stopped for breaks during intensified phototherapy, so you will not be able to breastfeed or hold your baby. But you can give your baby expressed milk.
During phototherapy, you baby's temperature will be monitored to make sure they're not getting too hot, and they'll be checked for signs of dehydration.
Intravenous fluids may be needed if your baby is becoming dehydrated and they are not able to drink enough.
The bilirubin levels will be tested every 4 to 6 hours after phototherapy has started, to check if the treatment is working.
Once your baby's bilirubin levels have stabilised or started to fall, they will be checked every 6 to 12 hours.
Phototherapy will be stopped when the bilirubin levels fall to a safe level, which usually takes a day or two.
Phototherapy is generally very effective for newborn jaundice and has few side effects.
If your baby has a very high level of bilirubin in their blood or phototherapy has not been effective, they may need a complete blood transfusion, known as an exchange transfusion.
During an exchange transfusion, your baby's blood will be removed through a thin plastic tube placed in blood vessels in their umbilical cord, arms or legs.
The blood is replaced with blood from a suitable matching donor (someone with the same blood group).
As the new blood will not contain bilirubin, the overall level of bilirubin in your baby's blood will fall quickly.
Your baby will be closely monitored throughout the transfusion process, which can take several hours to complete. Any problems that may arise, such as bleeding, will be treated.
Your baby's blood will be tested within 2 hours of treatment to check if it's been successful.
If the level of bilirubin in your baby's blood remains high, the procedure may need to be repeated.
If jaundice is caused by an underlying health problem, such as an infection, this usually needs to be treated.
If the jaundice is caused by rhesus disease (when the mother has rhesus-negative blood and the baby has rhesus-positive blood), intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) may be used.
IVIG is usually only used if phototherapy alone has not worked and the level of bilirubin in the blood is continuing to rise.
Page last reviewed: 03 February 2022
Next review due: 03 February 2025