Introduction

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 poo (it should be yellow or orange)

The symptoms of newborn jaundice usually develop 2 to 3 days after the birth and tend to get better without treatment by the time the baby is about 2 weeks old.

Read more about the symptoms of jaundice in babies.

When to seek medical advice

Your baby will be examined for signs of jaundice within 72 hours of being born, during the newborn physical examination.

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

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

If you're monitoring your baby's jaundice at home, it's also important to contact your midwife straight away if your baby's symptoms quickly get worse or they become very reluctant to feed.

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, which carry oxygen around the body, are broken down.

Jaundice is common in newborn babies because babies have a high number of red blood cells in their blood, which are broken down and replaced frequently.

Also, a newborn baby's liver is not fully developed, so it's less effective at removing the bilirubin from the blood.

By the time a baby is about 2 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).

How common is newborn jaundice?

Jaundice is 1 of the most common conditions that can affect newborn babies.

It's estimated 6 out of every 10 babies develop jaundice, including 8 out of 10 babies born prematurely before the 37th week of pregnancy.

But only around 1 in 20 babies has a blood bilirubin level high enough to need treatment.

For reasons that are unclear, breastfeeding increases a baby's risk of developing jaundice, which can often persist for a month or longer. 

But in most cases, the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any risks associated with jaundice.

Treating newborn jaundice

Treatment for newborn jaundice is not usually needed because the symptoms normally pass within 10 to 14 days, although they can occasionally last longer.

Treatment is usually only recommended if tests show very high levels of bilirubin in a baby's blood.

This is because there's a small risk the bilirubin could pass into the brain and cause brain damage.

There are 2 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 – where your baby's blood is removed using a thin tube (catheter) placed in their blood vessels and replaced with blood from a matching donor; most babies respond well to treatment and can leave hospital after a few days

Complications

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

Kernicterus is very rare in the UK, affecting less than 1 in every 100,000 babies born.

Read more about kernicterus in babies.

You can also read the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance about jaundice in newborn babies under 28 days.

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Symptoms

Symptoms of newborn jaundice

Jaundice usually appears about 3 days after birth and disappears by the time the baby is 2 weeks old.

In premature babies, who are more prone to jaundice, it can take 5 to 7 days to appear and usually lasts about 3 weeks.

It also tends to last longer in babies who are breastfed, affecting some babies for a few months.

If your baby has jaundice, their skin will look slightly yellow. The yellowing of the skin usually starts on the head and face, before spreading to the chest and stomach.

In some babies, the yellowing reaches their arms and legs. The yellowing may also increase if you press an area of skin down with your finger.

Changes in skin colour can be more difficult to spot if your baby has a darker skin tone.

In these cases, yellowing may be more obvious elsewhere, such as:

  • in the whites of their eyes
  • inside their mouth
  • on the soles of their feet
  • on the palms of their hands

A newborn baby with jaundice may also:

  • be sleepy
  • not want to feed or not feed as well as usual
  • have dark, yellow pee (it should be colourless)
  • have pale poo (it should be yellow or orange)

When to get medical advice

Your baby will usually be examined for signs of jaundice within 72 hours of being born as part of the newborn physical examination.

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

In most cases, jaundice is harmless and is not a sign of an underlying condition.

It usually clears up on its own by the time a baby is 2 weeks old.

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

Read more about diagnosing jaundice in babies.

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Causes

Jaundice is caused by too much bilirubin in the blood. This is known as hyperbilirubinaemia.

Bilirubin is a yellow substance produced when red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, are broken down.

The bilirubin travels in the bloodstream to the liver. The liver changes the form of the bilirubin so it can be passed out of the body in poo.

But if there's too much bilirubin in the blood or the liver can't get rid of it, the excess bilirubin causes jaundice.

Jaundice in babies

Jaundice is common in newborn babies because babies have a high number of red blood cells in their blood, which are broken down and replaced frequently.

A newborn baby's liver isn't fully developed, so it's less effective at processing the bilirubin and removing it from the blood.

This means the level of bilirubin in babies can be about twice as high as in adults.

By the time a baby is around 2 weeks old, they're producing less bilirubin and their liver is more effective at removing it from the body.

This means the jaundice often corrects itself by this point without causing any harm.

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding your baby can increase their chances of developing jaundice.

But there's no need to stop breastfeeding your baby if they have jaundice as the symptoms normally pass in a few weeks.

The benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential risks associated with the condition.

If your baby needs to be treated for jaundice, he or she may need extra fluids and more frequent feeds during treatment.

See treating newborn jaundice for more information.

It's unclear why breastfed babies are more likely to develop jaundice, but a number of theories have been suggested.

For example, it may be that breast milk contains certain substances that reduce the ability of the liver to process bilirubin.

Newborn jaundice thought to be linked to breastfeeding is sometimes called breast milk jaundice.

Underlying health conditions

Sometimes jaundice may be caused by another health problem. This is known as pathological jaundice.

Some causes of pathological jaundice include:

  • an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) – where the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough hormones
  • blood group incompatibility – when the mother and baby have different blood types, which are mixed during the pregnancy or the birth
  • rhesus factor disease – a condition that can occur if the mother has rhesus-negative blood and the baby has rhesus-positive blood
  • urinary tract infection
  • Crigler-Najjar syndrome – an inherited condition that affects the enzyme responsible for processing bilirubin
  • a blockage or problem in the bile ducts and gallbladder – the gallbladder stores bile, which is transported by the bile ducts to the gut

An inherited enzyme deficiency known as glucose 6 phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) could also lead to jaundice or kernicterus.

It's important to let your midwife, GP or paediatrician know if you have a family history of G6PD. Your baby's jaundice symptoms will need to be closely monitored.

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Diagnosis

our baby will be checked for jaundice within 72 hours of being born during the newborn physical examination.

But you should keep an eye out for the symptoms of jaundice after you return home because it can sometimes take up to a week to appear.

When you're at home with your baby, look out for yellowing of their skin or the whites of their eyes. 

Gently pressing your fingers on the tip of their nose or on their forehead can make it easier for you to spot any yellowing.

You should also check your baby's urine and poo. Your baby may have jaundice if their urine is yellow (a newborn baby's urine should be colourless) or their poo is pale (it should be yellow or orange).

Speak to your midwife, health visitor or GP as soon as possible if you think your baby may have jaundice.

Tests will need to be carried out to see whether treatment is needed.

Visual examination

Your baby will have a visual examination to look for signs of jaundice.

They need to be undressed during this so their skin can be looked at under good, preferably natural, light.

Other things that may also be checked include:

  • the whites of your baby's eyes
  • your baby's gums
  • the colour of your baby's urine or poo

Bilirubin test

If it's thought your baby has jaundice, the level of bilirubin in their blood will need to be tested.

This can be done using:

  • a small device called a bilirubinometer, which shines light on to your baby's skin (it calculates the level of bilirubin by analysing how the light reflects off or is absorbed by the skin)
  • a blood test of a sample of blood taken by pricking your baby's heel with a needle (the level of bilirubin in the liquid part of the blood called the serum is then measured)

In most cases, a bilirubinometer is used to check for jaundice in babies.

Blood tests are usually only necessary if your baby developed jaundice within 24 hours of birth or the reading is particularly high.

The level of bilirubin detected in your baby's blood is used to decide whether any treatment is needed.

Read more about treating jaundice in babies.

Further tests

Further blood tests may be needed if your baby's jaundice lasts longer than 2 weeks or treatment is needed.

The blood is analysed to determine:

  • the baby's blood group (this is to see if it's incompatible with the mother's)
  • whether any antibodies (infection-fighting proteins) are attached to the baby's red blood cells
  • the number of cells in the baby's blood
  • whether there's any infection
  • whether there's an enzyme deficiency

These tests help determine whether there's an underlying cause for the raised levels of bilirubin.

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Treatment

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 don't 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 won't cause any harm to your baby.

If treatment isn't 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 doesn't 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 doesn't 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

Phototherapy is treatment with a special type of light (not sunlight). 

It's sometimes used to treat newborn jaundice by lowering the bilirubin levels in your baby's blood through a process called photo-oxidation.

Photo-oxidation adds oxygen to the bilirubin so it dissolves easily in water. This makes it easier for your baby's liver to break down and remove the bilirubin from their blood.

There are 2 main types of phototherapy.

  • conventional phototherapy – where your baby is laid under a halogen or fluorescent lamp with their eyes covered
  • fibreoptic phototherapy – where your baby lies on a blanket that incorporates fibreoptic cables; light travels through the fibreoptic cables and shines on to your baby's back

In both methods of phototherapy, the aim is to expose your baby's skin to as much light as possible.

In most cases, conventional phototherapy is usually tried first, although fibreoptic phototherapy may be used if your baby was born prematurely.

These types of phototherapy will usually be stopped for 30 minutes every 3 to 4 hours so you can feed your baby, change their nappy and give them a cuddle.

If your baby's jaundice doesn't improve after conventional or fibreoptic phototherapy, continuous multiple phototherapy may be offered. 

This involves using more than one light and often a fibreoptic blanket at the same time.

Treatment won't be stopped during continuous multiple phototherapy.

Instead, milk expressed from your breasts in advance may be given through a tube into your baby's stomach, or fluids may be given into one of their veins (intravenously).

During phototherapy, you baby's temperature will be monitored to ensure 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 aren't able to drink a sufficient amount.

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'll be checked every 6 to 12 hours.

Phototherapy will be stopped when the bilirubin level falls to a safe level, which usually takes a day or two.

Phototherapy is generally very effective for newborn jaundice and has few side effects, although your baby may develop a temporary rash and diarrhoea.

Exchange transfusion

If your baby has a very high level of bilirubin in their blood or phototherapy hasn't 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 won't 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.

Other treatments

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 hasn't worked and the level of bilirubin in the blood is continuing to rise.

Learn more about IVIG treatment for rhesus disease.

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Complications

Kernicterus is a rare but serious complication of untreated jaundice in babies. It's caused by excess bilirubin damaging the brain or central nervous system.

In newborn babies with very high levels of bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinaemia), the bilirubin can cross the thin layer of tissue that separates the brain and blood (the blood-brain barrier).

The bilirubin can damage the brain and spinal cord, which can be life threatening.

Brain damage caused by high levels of bilirubin is also called bilirubin encephalopathy.

Your baby may be at risk of developing kernicterus if:

  • they have a very high level of bilirubin in their blood
  • the level of bilirubin in their blood is rising rapidly
  • they don't receive any treatment

Kernicterus is now very rare in the UK, affecting less than 1 in every 100,000 babies.

Initial symptoms of kernicterus in babies include:

  • poor feeding
  • irritability
  • a high-pitched cry
  • lethargy (sleepiness)
  • brief pauses in breathing (apnoea)
  • their muscles becoming unusually floppy, like a rag doll

As kernicterus progresses, additional symptoms can include fits (seizures) and muscle spasms that can cause arching of the back and neck.

Treatment for kernicterus involves using an exchange transfusion as used in the treatment of newborn jaundice.

If significant brain damage occurs before treatment, a child can develop serious and permanent problems, such as:

  • cerebral palsy (a condition that affects movement and co-ordination)
  • hearing loss (which can range from mild to severe)
  • learning disabilities
  • involuntary twitching of different parts of their body
  • problems maintaining normal eye movements (people affected by kernicterus have a tendency to gaze upwards or from side to side, rather than straight ahead)
  • poor development of the teeth
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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 18/10/2019 09:27:15