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 passes out of the body through feces or urine. Jaundice happens when there is a buildup of bilirubin. 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 because the mother's milk is not in yet or the baby is having problems feeding
- A substance in breast milk blocks bilirubin from leaving the body
- There is a large breakdown of red blood cells due to things like a mismatch in blood types in the mother and baby
- 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 feeding with breast
- Baby has a different blood type than mother, resulting in hemolysis
- Large bruises or bleeding under the scalp due to labor and delivery
- Certain liver enzyme deficiencies
All babies are checked for jaundice at birth and 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 screen for high bilirubin levels
- Blood test—to check 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:
Increased breastfeeding can help clear bilirubin from a baby's body. Babies who are formula-fed will need to get extra formula.
Phototherapy uses special lights to change the bilirubin in the blood. The bilirubin can then pass in the urine or stool.
Babies with severe jaundice may need a blood transfusion. This will replace the baby’s blood with new blood. The excess bilirubin will be removed with the blood.
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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Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics https://www.healthychildren.org
March of Dimes http://www.marchofdimes.org
Health Canada https://www.canada.ca
Public Health Agency of Canada http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca
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