Dealing with jaundice in newborns
Latest update: September 24, 2018
Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD
Jaundice in newborns is common and usually harmless but may need
bilirubin levels can be toxic and cause brain damage. So it's important
to recognize severe jaundice symptoms and get timely treatment if
What is jaundice in newborns?
With jaundice your newborn baby's skin will have a light yellow shine.
Usually you see it most at her head but the coloring can 'move down'
towards her arms and chest. Often the whites of baby's eyes are also
50-60% of all newborns show clear signs of yellow coloring, some a lot,
some barely noticeable.
Most often this is physiological
jaundice, caused by the naturally high bilirubin levels right
Bilirubin, a yellow pigment, is a product from normal red blood cell
processing in our body. In pregnancy, breaking down bilirubin is taken
care of by mommy's liver entirely.
Only right after birth does baby's liver take over. But it takes time
to be all efficient and that explains the high bilirubin levels and the
Besides this common form, other causes of jaundice in newborns include
mother-child blood incompatibilities, too little milk intake, in some
cases specific breastmilk composition and rare liver or intestine
Recognizing jaundice in newborns
Logically the first and simple symptom is yellowish skin and
eye-whites. The yellow can be very subtle. A good test is to press your
finger onto baby's skin. Normal skin will go whitish right after this
but yellow skin will stay yellow.
The yellow coloring will start at baby's head. As bilirubin levels
rise, the coloring will move down towards chest, arms, belly and legs.
'Below the abdomen' is considered a dangerous level, see below.
Timing is also helpful to recognize and diagnose:
- Physiological jaundice, the common harmless form, appears between
day 2 and 3 after
birth with a peak between day 2 and 4. It is usually gone by the age of
- Jaundice related to breastmilk composition will start around day 7, peak at 2-3 weeks
and can last longer than a month.
- Forms of jaundice that appear in the first 24 hours after birth are
rare but serious. Your doctors will closely monitor your baby and find
out what is causing it. This may be a mother-child blood
incompatibility or else caused by an infection or intestinal disorder.
Consult your pediatrician ASAP when your baby is extremely sleepy, barely
arouses to drink, feeds very little, has a high-pitched cry, has a
fever and/or is very 'floppy' with moments of strongly arching head and
This may point to dangerously high bilirubin levels and a condition
named kernicterus which can cause permanent brain damage.
Your pediatrician will advise you what to do and it is absolutely critical
that you take your baby to a doctor if you notice any sign of yellow
coloring in your young baby.
Putting your baby in a bright place near a window, with little clothes
on and feeding very very frequently are the first-aid actions. Do this
in any case if you notice jaundice and while awaiting the doctor's
consult. But don't trust
that it is enough until your doctor confirms.
If the jaundice is more severe, your doctor may advise light
therapy, or photo therapy.
Bright blue lights are then used to help
reduce bilirubin levels and so reduce the yellow coloring.
This can be done with a photo therapy blanket at home or light therapy
in the hospital.
Drinking frequently, whether breast milk or formula, is always very
important - the body gets rid of bilirubin through urine or with bowel