The yellow coloring is caused by bilirubin. Bilirubin is a waste product. The body makes it when red blood cells are broken down. Bilirubin normally leaves the body through feces (poop) or urine (pee). Jaundice happens when bilirubin builds up. This can happen when:
- The baby's body does not get rid of bilirubin in the first few days of life
- The baby does not get enough breastmilk
- A substance in breast milk blocks bilirubin from leaving the body
- Many red blood cells are broken down
- The baby has liver problems, such as infection or liver disease
Newborn jaundice is more common in East Asian babies as well as babies who are very sick or born early. It is also more common in babies who have a sibling who was treated for jaundice. Other things that may raise the risk are:
- High bilirubin levels or signs of jaundice in the first 24 hours of life
- Poor breastfeeding
- Baby has a different blood type than the pregnant person—this leads to a lot of red blood cells breaking down
- Large bruises or bleeding under the scalp due to labor and delivery
- Certain liver problems
The main symptom of jaundice is yellow skin color. It often starts in the face and may spread to the stomach and legs.
All babies are checked for jaundice at birth and again at 3 to 5 days of age. The doctor will ask about your baby’s symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on the baby's skin.
Tests may be:
- Transcutaneous bilirubin (TcB)—a light is passed through the baby's skin to check for high bilirubin levels
- Blood test—to check the level of bilirubin in blood
Most babies will not need treatment. Jaundice often goes away in 2 to 3 weeks. Babies who do need treatment may need:
More breastfeeding can help clear bilirubin from the baby's body. Babies who are formula-fed will need extra formula.
This uses special lights to change the bilirubin in the blood. The bilirubin can then leave the body in urine or stool.
Babies with severe jaundice may need a blood transfusion. This will replace the baby’s blood with new blood. The extra bilirubin will be removed with the blood.
Newborn jaundice cannot always be prevented. The risk can be lowered by feeding the baby often in the first days after birth.
Blood tests during pregnancy and after delivery could show if the baby and pregnant person have different blood types. This can help doctors catch and treat newborn jaundice early.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
Edits to original content made by Denver Health.
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