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Newborn Jaundice

Jaundice is when the skin and the whites of the eyes turn yellow. It happens if there is a high level of a substance called bilirubin in the blood. It is fairly common in newborns. It may be the sign of a problem with blood cells or the liver.

As red blood cells break down in the bloodstream and are replaced with new ones, bilirubin is released. It is the job of the liver to remove bilirubin from the bloodstream. The liver of a newborn may be too immature to remove bilirubin as fast as it forms. Also, newborns have more red blood cells that turn over more often, producing more bilirubin. If enough bilirubin builds up in the blood, it may cause jaundice. The skin and the whites of the eyes may appear yellow. Jaundice may be noticed in the face first. It may then progress down the chest and rest of the body.

Most cases of jaundice are mild. For this reason, no treatment is often needed. The yellow color goes away on its own as the baby’s liver starts working better. This may take a few weeks.

If bilirubin levels are high, your baby will need treatment. This helps prevent serious problems that can affect your baby’s brain and nervous system. Phototherapy is the most common treatment used. For this, your baby’s skin is exposed to a special light. The light changes the bilirubin to a substance that can be easily removed from the body. In some cases, other forms of phototherapy (such as a light-emitting blanket or mattress) may be used. The healthcare provider will tell you more about these options, if needed. 

Your baby may need to stay in the hospital during treatment. In severe cases, additional treatments may be needed.

Home care

  • Phototherapy may sometimes be done at home. If this is prescribed for your baby, be sure to follow all the instructions you receive from the healthcare provider.

  • If you are breastfeeding, nurse your baby when they are showing feeding cues, about 8 to 12 times a day. This averages out to every 2 to 3 hours. Feeding helps the baby's body get rid of the bilirubin in the stool and urine, so babies who aren't getting enough milk have a higher risk for jaundice. If you are having trouble breastfeeding, talk with your healthcare provider.

  • If you are bottle-feeding, follow the healthcare provider’s instructions about how much formula to give your child and how often.

Follow-up care

Follow up with the healthcare provider as directed. Your baby may need to have repeat tests to check bilirubin levels.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call the healthcare provider right away if:

  • Your baby is under 3 months of age and has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher. Get medical care right away. Fever in a young baby can be a sign of a dangerous infection.

  • Your baby or child is of any age and has repeated fevers above 104°F (40°C).

  • Your baby’s jaundice becomes worse. This means the skin becomes more yellow or yellow color starts spreading to other parts of the body.

  • The whites of your baby’s eyes become more yellow.

  • Your baby is not waking to feed or not able to feed.

  • Your baby is not gaining weight or is losing weight.

  • Your baby has fewer wet diapers than normal.

  • Your baby's stool does not become yellow after the first couple of days, looks pale or greyish, or both. 

  • Your baby is more sleepy than normal or the legs and arms appear floppy.

  • Your baby’s back or neck stays arched backward.

  • Your baby stays fussy or won’t stop crying.

  • Your baby looks or acts sick or unwell.

Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather Trevino
Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Lee MD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2020
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