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Newborn Jaundice: What Is It, Why Does It Happen And Should You Worry?


While welcoming a newborn into the world is an exciting time, parents also need to be concerned about their child’s health during this period. Jaundice is a common ailment that many neonates experience. This article presents a thorough analysis of newborn jaundice, including its causes, symptoms, treatment options, and preventive measures.

What Is Newborn Jaundice?

Newborn jaundice refers to the yellowing of a baby’s skin and whites of the eyes within the first week after birth.

Newborn Jaundice

It occurs when there is a buildup of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during the normal breakdown of red blood cells.

Mild jaundice is common in newborns but more severe jaundice can be dangerous if untreated.

Causes Of Newborn Jaundice  

▪️ Physiological jaundice

The most common cause occurs in up to 60% of newborns. Results from the normal breakdown of fetal red blood cells after birth. Tends to peak at 3-5 days old.

▪️ Breastfeeding jaundice

Occurs around days 4-7. Can result from dehydration or inadequate milk intake leading to a buildup of bilirubin. Frequent nursing helps.

▪️ Blood type incompatibility

If the mother and baby have different blood types (Rh or ABO incompatibility), the mother’s antibodies can destroy the baby’s red blood cells causing excess bilirubin.

▪️ Infection

Disrupts bilirubin metabolism. Maternal infections like chorioamnionitis or neonatal sepsis increase risk.

▪️ Hemolytic disease

Inherited defects like G6PD deficiency or spherocytosis lead to rapid red blood cell breakdown and elevated bilirubin levels.

▪️ Liver disease

Impaired liver function from neonatal hepatitis, biliary atresia, or metabolic disorder reduces bilirubin excretion.

▪️ Breast milk jaundice

Certain substances in breast milk can inhibit bilirubin metabolization in some infants. Tends to be mild.

C▪️ rigler-Najjar syndrome

A very rare genetic disorder causing severe jaundice from missing bilirubin-metabolizing enzyme.

The most dangerous causes involve hemolytic diseases and severe liver dysfunction. But physiological jaundice is overwhelmingly the most common and benign cause of newborn jaundice.

Identifying the exact cause guides appropriate treatment.

Symptoms Of Newborn Jaundice

▪️ Yellowing of the skin

Starts as a yellowish tinge on the head, face, and chest, gradually spreading downwards to the abdomen, arms, and legs as bilirubin levels increase.

▪️ Yellowing of the whites of the eyes

The sclerae will turn yellow as jaundice progresses.

▪️ Sleepiness/lethargy

Babies become very tired, inactive, and difficult to wake due to high bilirubin causing brain cell damage.

▪️ Poor feeding

Loss of appetite, disinterest in nursing, not finishing bottles. Dehydration worsens jaundice.

▪️ Irritability

Babies may be inconsolably fussy, crying in a high-pitched tone.

▪️ Abnormal tone

Limp muscles curled up posture due to a lack of muscle control.

▪️ Hypothermia

Body temperature may be lower than normal due to lethargy.

▪️ Vomiting or diarrhea

This can be a sign of an infection contributing to jaundice.

▪️ Seizures

May occur with very severe untreated jaundice and kernicterus.

The visible yellowing of the skin and sclera along with unusual sleepiness are classic signs. Changes in behavior, temperature, and muscle control warrant prompt medical attention.

Treatment Of Newborn Jaundice

  • Light therapy – Uses blue light to help break down bilirubin.
  • Fluid supplementation – Encourages hydration and urination to flush out bilirubin.
  • Blood transfusion – Replaces incompatible blood types.
  • Medications – Help improve bilirubin metabolism.
  • Liver transplant – For cases of liver failure.

Prevention Of Newborn Jaundice

  • Monitor intake and weight – Ensures adequate feeding.
  • Screen for blood type issues – Identify ABO and Rh incompatibility.
  • Avoid indirect light – Excessive sunlight converts bilirubin into toxic substances.
  • Routine screening – Track bilirubin levels to catch problems early.

When To See A Doctor For Newborn Jaundice?  

Jaundice appearing in the first 24 hours after birth – This requires evaluation as it may indicate an underlying condition. Physiological jaundice usually appears after 24 hours.

  • Jaundice persisting beyond 2 weeks of age –  Physiological jaundice typically resolves by 2 weeks. Prolonged jaundice may signify a problem.
  • Jaundice spreading down the body – Yellowing that progresses from the head down the chest and abdomen may be severe and need treatment.
  • Deep yellow color – A lemon-yellow versus lighter yellow tinge indicates higher bilirubin levels.
  • Yellow palms and soles – Jaundice in hands and feet signals very high bilirubin levels.
  • Poor feeding – Infants are too lethargic or disinterested in feeding due to jaundice.
  • Lethargy/fussiness – Excess sleepiness, high-pitched crying, and irritability are concerning.
  • Low body temperature -Hypothermia below 97°F indicates worsening jaundice.
  • Dark urine or white/chalky stools – Sign of elevated bilirubin.

Prompt medical assessment for jaundice is vital to prevent complications like kernicterus brain damage.

Newborns with no risk factors can often be managed at home initially but should be monitored closely for worsening. When in doubt, contacting the pediatrician is recommended.

FAQs about newborn jaundice

1. How long does newborn jaundice last?

Physiological jaundice usually resolves by 2 weeks but can last 3-4 weeks. Prolonged jaundice needs evaluation.

2. How is severe newborn jaundice treated?

Intensive phototherapy, blood exchange transfusion, medications, IV fluids, and other interventions depending on the cause.

3. Does newborn jaundice cause brain damage?

Rarely, very high bilirubin levels can trigger kernicterus leading to cerebral palsy, hearing loss, and other neurological conditions.


While mild newborn jaundice is common and benign, more severe hyperbilirubinemia can become dangerous without prompt treatment.

Close monitoring, screening tests, and early medical support when required can prevent complications. Most cases resolve on their own within a few weeks with no lasting effects

Dr. Harold Gojiberry is not just your ordinary General Practitioner; he is a compassionate healthcare provider with a deep commitment to patient well-being and a passion for literature. With extensive medical knowledge and experience, Dr. Gojiberry has made a significant impact in the field of healthcare, particularly in the area of liver diseases and viral hepatitis.

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