Jaundice (hyperbilirubinemia) is a yellow coloring in your baby’s skin and sometimes in the whites of the eyes. It happens during the first weeks of life. There are many types of jaundice, including:
The yellow coloring is caused by bilirubin, a waste product created by the body when it breaks down red blood cells in the normal course of metabolism. If you are unsure whether your baby’s skin is yellow with jaundice, look at the baby naked in natural or fluorescent light. Press down gently on the baby’s forehead or chest and watch as the color returns.
This condition can easily be treated; contact your doctor if you think your baby may have newborn jaundice.
The following factors increase your baby’s chances of developing newborn jaundice. If your baby has any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
If your baby experiences any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to newborn jaundice. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If your baby experiences any one of them, see your baby’s doctor.
Place your baby near a window without any clothes on, or in a room with fluorescent light, and look at his or her skin. If you are unsure, press gently on the baby’s forehead or chest and watch as the color reappears.
Call the doctor if your baby has already been diagnosed with jaundice and the color gets deeper, or if the yellow color spreads to other parts of the body or the eyes. Also call the doctor if your baby has already been diagnosed with jaundice and it persists for more than three weeks.
These are signs that the level of bilirubin in your baby’s blood is dangerously high. Too much bilirubin in your baby’s blood can lead to a very rare form of brain damage called kernicterus. There are effective treatments for kernicterus as long as the baby is seen by the doctor.
The American Association of Pediatricians recommends that all babies be assessed for jaundice before they leave the hospital. They are checked again at 3 to 5 days of age. Your baby’s doctor will ask about your baby’s symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
Tests may include the following:
Most babies with jaundice will not require treatment. Talk with your baby’s doctor about the best treatment plan for your baby, if one is necessary. Treatment options include:
Baby is placed naked, or wearing only a small diaper, under special blue or white lights called bili-lights. The baby will have a shield to protect his or her eyes. The lights help the bilirubin in the blood to change so that it can easily be eliminated in the urine, and in bile through the gastrointestinal tract. Phototherapy can take place at home or in the hospital.
Putting your baby in the sunlight is NOT recommended. Exposure to direct sunlight on a naked baby can cause dangerous sunburn.
The doctor may suggest that you increase the number of feedings to increase the number of bowel movements. Bowel movements help to eliminate bilirubin. Your baby’s pediatrician may suggest feeding a breastfed-baby formula for a day or two to increase the amount of liquids the baby takes. You should pump during this time so that breast milk will be available for the baby after the treatment. Breast milk is the best food for your baby.
In the most severe cases of jaundice, the doctor may recommend replacing your baby’s blood with new blood.
If your newborn is diagnosed with jaundice, follow your doctor's instructions.
American Academy of Pediatrics
The March of Dimes
Alberta Children's Services
Behrman RE, Kliegman RM, Jenson HB. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics . 17th Ed. Philadelphia PA: Saunders; 2004.
Hyperbilirubinemia. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy website. Available at: http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec23/ch264/ch264p.html . Accessed September 19, 2005.
Jaundice and your newborn. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.aap.org/family/jaundicefaq.htm . Accessed September 19, 2005.
Maisels MJ. Neonatal jaundice. Pediatrics in Review . 2006; 27(12):443-453.
Management of hyperbilirubinemia in the newborn infant 35 or more weeks of gestation. Subcommittee on Hyperbilirubinemia. Pediatrics . 2004;114(1):297-316.
RM Kleigman, RE Behrman, HB Jenson, BF Stanton. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics . 18th Edition. Eds. Saunders Publishers, Philadelphia PA, 2007.
Newborn jaundice. Medline Medical Encyclopedia website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001559.htm . Accessed September 19, 2005.
Last reviewed November 2008 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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