Jaundice in Newborns

March 21, 2017

Jaundice in Newborns

Most jaundice in newborn babies is normal. It goes away in a few days without treatment and is not serious. Once this type of jaundice goes away, it will not come back.

What does the word "jaundice" mean?  

The word jaundice means "yellow". When a baby is jaundiced, it means the skin color looks yellow. Jaundice first shows in the face and chest and then moves down toward the toes.

What causes the skin to appear yellow?

Bilirubin is formed and released into the bloodstream when red blood cells are broken down. Bilirubin, which has a yellow pigment, is deposited in the baby’s skin for storage until it gets carried to the liver to be processed and excreted in the bowel movements. This is a normal process for getting rid of older red blood cells. A newborn has an immature liver and cannot process the bilirubin as fast as when he gets older.

Why does neonatal jaundice occur?  

Most babies with jaundice have physiologic jaundice. This jaundice is a result of the normal process of breaking down red blood cells. Sometimes other things can cause jaundice in the newborn. The most common of these conditions are known as ABO incompatibility and Rh incompatibility. They occur when mother and baby have different blood types. These conditions cause a very fast breakdown of red blood cells. Physical defects in the organs that work to eliminate bilirubin may also cause jaundice. If your baby has any of these other conditions, you will receive additional information from your doctor.  It is important that babies with jaundice be carefully monitored and treated if necessary to lower the bilirubin levels.  If lefted untreated, bilirubin can reach dangerous levels in some infants, resulting in a form of brain damage called kernicterus.

Does my baby have jaundice?  

Your baby has been checked for jaundice each day while in the hospital.  After you are home, you can check for jaundice yourself. Press the skin on the chest to see if it looks yellow when released. Darker skin babies can be checked by looking at the gums or whites of the eyes.

What should I do if my baby looks yellow after we go home?  

If you think the baby is starting to look yellow, looks more yellow than when you left the hospital, is not eating well, or seems to be less alert, please call your pediatrician’s office right away. You may need to take the baby to the doctor’s office to be checked. If it is a weekend, or you cannot reach your baby's doctor, you should go to the emergency room.

Updated Guidelines

In July 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics  issued updated guidelines for jaundice and newborns.

Key recommendations included in the updated guidelines include:

  • Doctors should perform a systematic assessment on all infants, prior to discharge from hospital, for subsequent risk of severe jaundice.

  • Medical personnel should schedule a follow-up visit one or two days after discharge, by three to five days of age when the baby's bilirubin level is highest.

  • Mothers should breast-feed at least eight to 12 times a day for the first few days. This helps produce enough milk and helps control the baby's bilirubin levels.

  • Parents should be given written and oral information about newborn jaundice.


March 21, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Lesperance, Leann MD,Nancy BowersNancy Bowers RN MPH