Jaundice in Newborn Babies

Paediatric Assessment Unit (PAU) Tel: 01473 702198

Bergholt Ward Tel: 01473 702194 or 702195

What do I need to know?

Jaundice is a common condition in newborn babies. It occurs when there is an excess of bilirubin in the blood which causes a yellow discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It often looks like a suntan.

In babies with darker skin, it can be noticed in the whites of their eyes, the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands.

Jaundice in babies is a normal and usually temporary condition which often disappears without any treatment, but it can be a sign of a more serious illness.

Information about Jaundice

The body is continuously making and breaking down red blood cells and bilirubin is a natural pigment produced by the breakdown of these cells. When babies are born they have a higher than normal level of red blood cells and, because there are more red blood cells being broken down, there is more bilirubin being made.

Bilirubin usually passes through the liver and is excreted in baby’s faeces (poo), but sometimes the level of bilirubin in baby’s blood can build up. This is because baby’s developing liver is not yet able to break down the bilirubin fast enough or the level is too high for the liver to manage.

As baby’s liver function matures, the jaundice will go away. This usually takes a couple of weeks but, if your baby was premature, it may take longer.

Although low levels of bilirubin are not a concern, large amounts can lead to a condition called kernicterus which is harmful to the development of baby’s brain.

  • Yellowing of the skin, usually beginning on the face and then moving down the body.
  • Yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
  • Poor feeding and drowsiness.

If the bilirubin is below treatment level and your baby is feeding well, you may be able to monitor the jaundice at home. If the level is high, your baby will need to have phototherapy.

  • Check your baby’s skin colour and the whites of their eyes. This is best done in natural daylight.
  • Check that your baby is waking for feeds, at least every three hours.
  • Ensure that your baby is feeding adequately as this will help to reduce their bilirubin level.
  • Breast-fed babies may need to be fed as many as 10-12 times in 24 hours but these do not need to be long feeds. Night feeding is important as this can help establish an ample milk supply.
  • Check that your baby is having wet and dirty nappies. Baby’s urine should be colourless on the nappy. A breast-fed baby’s faeces should be greeny-yellow in colour. A bottle-fed baby’s faeces should be greeny-mustard yellow in colour. If your baby’s faeces are pale or white in colour, contact your GP or midwife immediately.
  • Placing your baby in natural daylight near a window can help to reduce the jaundice, but be careful that your baby does not get too hot, and avoid direct sunlight.

If you have concerns about any of the above or your baby remains jaundiced for more than two weeks, contact your health visitor or GP for advice.

For more information about jaundice in newborn babies from NHS Choices, go to www.nhs.uk/conditions/Jaundice-newborn