Jaundice in Newborn Babies: Reasons, Signs & Treatment

Neonatal Jaundice

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Gunjan Baweja (Paediatrician)
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While you are basking in the joy of the arrival, of your newborn baby, you might notice your baby’s skin looks yellow. This can cause you to panic and worry. In such a scenario, your family doctor might be the best person to consult. However, there’s no need to worry because this can be infant jaundice or neonatal jaundice that occurs in many newborn babies. Although it is not harmful, it can cause problems, if untreated. Read on and equip yourself with enough information on why do babies get jaundice.

Video: Neonatal Jaundice – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

What Is Neonatal Jaundice?

Neonatal jaundice occurs when the bilirubin level in the baby’s blood is high. This level contributes to a change in the colour of the baby’s skin and the whites of his eyes; they turn yellow. This condition in babies, due to the high unconjugated bilirubin levels, is known as Neonatal Jaundice.

Bilirubin is a yellow-coloured material that the human body creates during the process of replacing old red blood cells in the body. The liver helps in breaking down the bilirubin so that it is flushed out of the body through stools. The level of bilirubin is low in adults when compared to newborn babies, also referred to as neonates. The concentration of red blood cells in babies is higher. Therefore, there is an increase in the normal range of bilirubin for newborn baby.

This yellow colouration of the skin and the whites of the eyes due to neonatal hyperbilirubinemia indicate a normal transitional phase. However, jaundice in babies can be fatal, if not treated.

How Common Is Jaundice in Newborn Babies?

Around 60% of full-term newborns and 80% of preterm babies develop jaundice during the first week or two. Generally, all newborn babies have jaundice, but it’s not always evident. Often, jaundice is a common and transient physiological consequence of the baby’s immature liver. Handling a baby with jaundice is an expected scenario in hospitals that specialise in newborn babies. For many babies, this is harmless, yet a temporary condition that disappears on its own or with appropriate treatment. However, in some cases, it’s very critical, so it is vital to be cautious.

What Are the Causes of Neonatal Jaundice?

Human blood contains bilirubin. When old red blood cells break down, bilirubin is one of the substances that is created. Generally, bilirubin is removed by the liver from the blood and the body. After removal, the liver gets rid of it through urine and bowel movements. Higher levels of the pigment, bilirubin in the blood cause the skin to appear yellow. Jaundice occurs as bilirubin in newborns is more than what can be disposed of. Following are the forms of jaundice depending on the various causes of jaundice in babies:

  • Physiological Jaundice
  • Breastfeeding jaundice
  • Breast Milk jaundice
  • Blood Group Incompatibility Jaundice
  • Prematurity

Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1. Physiological Jaundice

During pregnancy, the placenta grows to feed the baby. As the baby is in your womb, your body removes the bilirubin from the baby through the placenta. After the baby is born, the baby’s liver must get rid of the bilirubin. It might take time for the baby’s liver to do this job efficiently. So, the bilirubin increases in the baby’s blood and jaundice occurs. This type of jaundice is referred to as physiological jaundice. Usually, it appears during the second or third day and disappears within two weeks. The yellow colour appears all over the skin and reaches the toes, at times.

2. Breastfeeding Jaundice

The concentration of the bilirubin in the blood shoots up if there is insufficient liquid. So, your breastfeeding baby would be affected with breastfeeding jaundice if it is not receiving plenty of breast milk. Discussing your feeding problem with your doctor or consulting a lactation expert can help you handle this type of jaundice. After the baby receives adequate milk through proper feeding methods, frequent and increased feedings, jaundice will disappear.

3. Breast Milk Jaundice

During the first few weeks, breastfeeding babies might develop breast-milk jaundice. Typically, this type of jaundice is diagnosed when the baby is around 7 to 11 days old. The baby would be gaining weight and nursing as required, but the breast milk might be affecting the liver’s capability of processing the bilirubin. This can continue for many weeks or even months. It occurs in babies that are predominantly breastfed. It is harmless; however, if the baby’s bilirubin level goes very high, the doctors might advise you to stop feeding the baby with breast milk for a few days. When the bilirubin level regains its normalcy, you can breastfeed the baby.

4. Blood Group Incompatibility

Incompatibility in the blood groups of the mother and the baby can cause jaundice. This maternal-foetal blood group incompatibility leads to increased bilirubin levels during the breakdown of the baby’s red blood cells.

5. Prematurity

Babies who are born earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy have a higher risk of getting jaundice when compared to full-term babies. In premature babies, the liver is not fully developed to remove the bilirubin. So, the babies end up developing jaundice.

Prematurity6. Other Causes of Neonatal Jaundice

Sometimes, jaundice might be caused due to reasons, such as infections or an issue with the baby’s digestive system. Jaundice can also occur under the following conditions:

  • Blood infection or sepsis
  • Red blood cell enzyme or red blood cell membrane defects
  • Internal bleeding
  • Maternal diabetes
  • Polycythemia (Elevated Red Blood Cell Count)
  • Bruising during childbirth
  • Galactosemia (metabolism of the sugar galactose isn’t properly carried out)
  • Enzyme essential for disposal of bilirubin is deficient
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Hepatitis
  • Thalassemia (blood disorder with defective production of haemoglobin)
  • Biliary atresia (one or more ducts of the liver is blocked)
  • Crigler-Najjar syndrome (an inherited disorder that affects the metabolism of bilirubin)

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Jaundice in Newborns?

Hyperbilirubinemia symptoms vary depending on the cause of jaundice and the level of bilirubin increase. Following are some of the signs and symptoms that can indicate that the baby has jaundice:

  • Yellow-coloured skin is one of the most visible signs of jaundice. Neonatal jaundice skin symptoms first appear on the face and then move on gradually to the other parts of the body.
  • Drowsiness is a symptom of severe jaundice.
  • Neurological signs such as seizures, high-pitched crying, muscle tone changes might occur. These signs must be attended to immediately to avoid complications.
  • The baby passes dark and yellow urine.
  • Baby is not feeding or sucking appropriately.
  • Hepatitis and biliary atresia increase the conjugated bilirubin level. This increase results in jaundice, which is signified by pale stools and dark urine.
  • The yellow-coloured sclera is another predominant sign. In extreme cases, the limbs and abdomen display yellow colouration.

What Does Jaundice in Newborns With Dark Skin Look Like?

Jaundice might not be as visibly apparent in babies with darker skin tones. However, you can still detect it by observing the yellowing of their eyes and the area beneath their tongue.

dark skin neonatal jaundiceDiagnosis and Tests

Your doctors will examine the baby for jaundice from birth. Ideally, they would observe him for three to five days after birth because the newborn bilirubin levels can be highest during this period. There are various tests for diagnosing jaundice in newborns. Let us look at some of these tests.

1. Visual Examination

This is the first and most common methods used for diagnosing jaundice. The doctor undresses the baby and examines the skin under good lighting. He/she would then examine the sclera of the eyes and also the gums, and ask you questions regarding the baby’s urine and stool colours to determine whether it could be jaundice.

2. Bilirubin Tests

If the doctor has doubts that the baby has jaundice, he/she will prescribe blood tests to confirm doubts. There are two types of blood tests:

  • Transcutaneous Bilirubinometry – To perform this test, the doctor uses a device known as bilirubinometer. Through this device, a beam of light is directed on the baby’s skin. The device calculates the level of bilirubin in the baby’s blood depending on the light reflecting off the skin or the amount of light the skin absorbs.
  • Using a Blood Sample – The doctor takes a blood sample from the heel of your baby, and a pathologist checks the bilirubin level in the serum. Usually, doctors prefer bilirubinometer.

Bilirubin Tests

Once a bilirubin test is carried out, the doctor will examine the levels.

3. Bilirubin Levels in Newborns

The bilirubin test for newborn determines the bilirubin levels. The normal range of bilirubin in a newborn baby is below 5mg/dl. If the level of bilirubin is higher than this normal value, the baby has neonatal jaundice. The charts by the American Academy of Paediatrics are used to determine the need for treatment, which varies with the hours of the life of the newborn. There are other charts too that help in predicting the level of risk a baby will have. Depending on this, the doctor will decide the treatment.

Source: Caring For Kids

Let’s take a look at the bilirubin levels in healthy newborn babies and premature newborn babies.

1. Bilirubin Level in Healthy Newborn Baby

The following bilirubin chart indicates the serum bilirubin level in healthy newborn babies who require treatment for jaundice:

Age of the Baby Serum Bilirubin Levels
Less than 24 hours Above 10 mg
24 – 48 hours Above 15 mg
49-72 hours Above 18 mg
Older than 72 hours Above 20 mg

2. Bilirubin Level in a Premature Newborn Baby

The following bilirubin chart indicates the serum bilirubin level in premature newborn babies who require treatment for jaundice:

Age of the Baby Serum Bilirubin Levels
24 hours old 8 mg/dl or higher
48 hours old 13 mg/dl or higher
72 hours old 16 mg/dl or higher
96 hours old 17 mg/dl or higher

3. Other Tests

If the doctor thinks more tests are required based on the severity, the following investigations are done through blood tests:

  • Blood group compatibility
  • Complete blood count of the bay
  • Determining enzyme deficiency or infection
  • Testing red blood cells and checking if antibodies are attached to them

Risk Factors That Could Lead to Neonatal Jaundice

Although neonatal jaundice is common, newborns with some risk factors are more prone to developing jaundice. Some of the risks factors include:

  • The babies have siblings who have had neonatal jaundice.
  • If they are preterm babies, born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, they might not be able to process bilirubin quickly. They might feed less and so have lesser bowel movements, which reduce the amount of bilirubin released.
  • Babies who have feeding difficulties.
  • Babies whose mothers are diabetic.
  • Babies with bruises or cephalohematoma. If babies have bruises during delivery, there are chances of the babies developing jaundice.
  • Dehydration might contribute to the onset of jaundice.
  • Mother-baby blood group incompatibility.
  • Congenital infection.
  • Occurrence is higher in East Asians and American Indians and minimal amongst Africans.
  • Abnormal blood cell shapes (such as sickle cell anemia).

Possible Risks and Complications of Jaundice in Newborns

Severe neonatal jaundice might have major complications. Therefore, it is required to consult your doctor and treat accordingly, on time.

Following are some complications that the baby can develop:

1. Acute Bilirubin Encephalopathy

Bilirubin is harmful to brain cells. Severe cases of jaundice can be risky and lead to the bilirubin reaching the brain. This condition is referred to as acute bilirubin encephalopathy. If it is not treated, it causes irremediable damage to the brain. The following symptoms might indicate that the baby is affected by acute bilirubin encephalopathy:

  • Fever
  • Difficulty waking
  • Vomiting
  • Poor sucking or feeding
  • Backward arching of the neck and body
  • High-pitched crying

2. Kernicterus

If acute bilirubin encephalopathy results in irreversible or permanent damage to the brain, it results in a syndrome referred to as Kernicterus. This syndrome can cause the following damages:

  • Permanent upward gaze
  • Uncontrolled and involuntary movements known as athetoid cerebral palsy
  • Improper development of tooth enamel
  • Hearing loss

Treatment Options for Neonatal Jaundice

If the jaundice is mild, it will disappear within two to three weeks. If the condition is moderate or severe, the baby must be treated to decrease the bilirubin levels. Following are some of the popular neonatal jaundice treatments:

1. Phototherapy

If your baby has moderate neonatal jaundice, phototherapy is given. This treatment uses light to bring down the bilirubin levels. Due to this light treatment, photo-oxidation occurs. Photo-oxidation adds oxygen to bilirubin so that it can dissolve in water. This enables the liver to metabolise the bilirubin in the blood and remove it from the body. Phototherapy for baby is safe, and it will last for two to three days, with a gap after every three to four hours. During the gap, you can feed the baby. The bilirubin levels are constantly monitored. Sometimes, the baby might develop a tan, but it would disappear soon. There are two types of phototherapy:

  • Conventional Phototherapy – In conventional phototherapy, babies are placed under halogen lamps or fluorescent lamps. During the procedure, the babies’ eyes are well-covered.

  • Fibre-Optic Phototherapy – In the fibre optic phototherapy, the babies are wrapped in a blanket called biliblanket, which contains fibre-optic cables. Light travels through these cables and envelops the baby. This treatment takes one to two days. The baby is fed once in two hours to avoid dehydration. This treatment is used for premature babies.

2. Exchange Transfusion for Neonatal Jaundice

If the baby’s bilirubin levels do not decrease by phototherapy, doctors perform exchange transfusion wherein a small quantity of the baby’s blood is removed and replaced with a donor’s blood. The donor’s blood would not contain bilirubin, and so this will decrease the bilirubin levels after the transfusion. The exchange transfusion for neonatal jaundice is a long process. The baby is carefully monitored. Two hours after the process, blood tests are performed to determine whether the procedure was successful.

3. Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIg)

Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) is administered directly into the bloodstream, typically for infants with blood type mismatches. This treatment works by inhibiting antibodies that target red blood cells, thereby lessening the necessity for an exchange transfusion.

Newborn Baby Jaundice Treatment at Home

In mild cases, the doctor might suggest home remedies for jaundice in newborns. Following are some home remedies:

  • The doctor might recommend a change in the feeding patterns. Frequent feeding helps in removing the excess bilirubin through excretion. Breast-fed babies must have 8 to 12 feedings a day.
  • If the baby is having trouble during breast-feeding, the doctor may suggest giving expressed milk or formula to supplement feeding.
  • Supplement of sunlight can also help the baby. You can hold the baby in a sunny room so that he feels the warmth. Do not expose to direct sunlight.
  • If jaundice occurs due to the breast milk, your doctor might advise you to stop feeding for a day or two.
  • Incorporate magnesium-rich foods into your diet if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding while your baby has jaundice.

Prevention of Neonatal Jaundice

Jaundice is normal is babies and cannot be prevented. However, you can prevent it from becoming severe by proper screening, monitoring, and prompt treatment. Following are some tips on how to prevent jaundice in newborns:

  • High-risk babies must be monitored closely and treated to prevent complications.
  • Pregnant mother’s blood group must be tested for blood group and the presence of unusual antibodies. If the mother is detected to be Rh-negative, the infant must be tested to ensure that he is not affected.
  • You must ensure that the baby is well-hydrated during the first few days after birth so that excess bilirubin is flushed out.
  • You must observe the baby’s skin colour and other symptoms of jaundice so that the baby is treated on time.
  • Ensure to breastfeed your baby between eight to 12 times a day during their initial week of life.

When Should You Call the Doctor?

Hospitals check for jaundice in babies before discharging them. It is advisable to take follow-up appointments during the first few days and check with the doctor to ensure that the baby is fine. Generally, doctors will check babies between the third and seventh day after birth because, during this period, the bilirubin levels are high. Before discharge, parents must be educated about jaundice and advised to come back to the hospital, if required.

If you find some of the signs and symptoms of jaundice, it is advisable to consult the doctor. Wondering when jaundice in babies when to worry? Call your doctor in the following scenarios:

  • Baby’s skin becomes more yellow, including its abdominal regions, legs and feet.
  • The whites of the baby’s eyes look yellow.
  • The baby finds it difficult to awaken.
  • The baby makes high-pitched cries.
  • If your baby has jaundice for more than three weeks.


1. Does Jaundice Make Babies Sleepy?

Yes, jaundice in baby can make them sleepy. It can lead to lethargy and decreased activity due to the effects of elevated bilirubin levels on the central nervous system.

2. Does Vitamin D Help With Baby Jaundice?

Vitamin D does not directly treat baby jaundice. Jaundice is primarily caused by an excess of bilirubin in the blood, which is unrelated to vitamin D deficiency. Treatment for jaundice typically involves phototherapy or, in severe cases, exchange transfusion. Always consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

3. What Is the Duration of a Baby’s Hospital Stay for Jaundice Treatment?

Certain infants require immediate treatment before discharge, while others may necessitate readmission a few days later. Typically, hospital treatment spans 1 to 2 days, prompted by elevated or rapidly increasing bilirubin levels.

Jaundice in a newborn baby makes parents anxious, worried and tensed. However, advancements in medical sciences ensure that your little one gets the appropriate treatment. If you are aware of the symptoms of neonatal jaundice, you can observe the baby during the initial few days and get it treated. It is important to educate yourself all about neonatal jaundice so that you do not panic.

Although newborn jaundice is not harmful, for some babies, it gets severe. High levels of bilirubin affect the brain, so it is advisable to observe the baby, diagnose and treat promptly to ensure that it does not cause permanent damages. The pointers in this article will help parents understand everything about neonatal jaundice and act accordingly if required.


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4. Jaundice in Newborns; my.clevelandclinic.org; https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22263-jaundice-in-newborns

5. Infant jaundice; mayoclinic.org; https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infant-jaundice/symptoms-causes/syc-20373865

6. Neonatal Jaundice; gi.org; https://gi.org/topics/neonatal-jaundice/

7. Phototherapy for neonatal jaundice; rch.org.au; https://www.rch.org.au/rchcpg/hospital_clinical_guideline_index/phototherapy_for_neonatal_jaundice/

8. Study on Newborn Babies With a Yellow Skin Color (Neonatal Jaundice Study); clinicaltrials.gov; https://clinicaltrials.gov/study/NCT02361788

9. What is Jaundice?; cincinnatichildrens.org; https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/j/jaundice

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Rubeola (Measles) in Babies
Causes of Meningitis in Babies
Symptoms and Treatment of Roseola in Infant

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