Not all parents know that jaundice is a common condition in newborns. Jaundice refers to a yellow color of the skin and whites of the eyes, which occurs when there is too much bilirubin in a newborn’s blood. When bilirubin builds up faster than an infant’s liver can break it down, this is when the symptoms of jaundice show up.

Signs and symptoms of jaundice
Because they have a higher turnover of red blood cells, infants actually make more bilirubin in their body than adults. Also, as a newborn’s liver is still developing, the liver might not be able to remove enough bilirubin from the blood.

Jaundice usually appears around the second or third day of a child’s life. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Baby’s skin appears yellow on the face, followed by yellow skin on the chest, stomach and legs
  • Whites of a baby’s eyes look yellow
  • In infants with a darker complexion, skin appears yellow when you press the skin on a baby’s nose or forehead and then lift your finger

As most newborns go home from the hospital within the first day or two of birth, it’s important for both parents and doctors to watch for jaundice in the baby.

When should you call a doctor if a baby has jaundice?
Any baby with yellow skin or yellow eyes should be checked by a doctor. In cases of jaundice in newborns, call your doctor or pediatrician right away if:

  • Your baby has jaundice in the first 24 hours after being born
  • Jaundice is spreading, getting more yellow or more intense
  • Baby has a rectal fever over 100 °F (37.8 °C)
  • Baby looks or appears sick
  • Your baby is not feeding well

Types of jaundice
There are multiple types of jaundice. Some of the most common are:

  • Physiological (normal) jaundice — This is a mild type of jaundice that most newborns have because their liver is still maturing. It often appears when an infant is 2 to 4 days old and disappears by 1 to 2 weeks of age.
  • Jaundice of prematurity — Common in premature babies because their bodies are less prepared to excrete bilirubin properly.
  • Breastfeeding jaundice — Can occur when babies who are breastfed don’t get enough milk, due to trouble breastfeeding or the mother’s milk isn’t in yet. Seek out a lactation consultant if a baby has this type of jaundice.
  • Breast milk jaundice — In about 1 to 2 percent of breastfed newborns, jaundice is caused by certain substances in breast milk, which can make bilirubin levels rise. Usually begins after the first three to five days after birth and slowly improves over the next three to 12 weeks in a newborn’s life.
  • Blood group incompatibility (Rh or ABO problems) — If a mother and a child have different blood types, the mother’s body can produce antibodies that destroy the newborn’s red blood cells. In the past, Rh problems used to cause the most severe form of jaundice, but can now be prevented by giving the mother an Rh immune-globulin injection.

Treatment for jaundice in newborns
In most cases, jaundice in newborns does not require treatment. If your child has mild or moderate jaundice, the condition will go away in about one to two weeks. However, in the instance of severe jaundice, this could lead to kernicterus, a serious brain-damaging condition that can cause cerebral palsy, hearing loss, vision impairments and dental enamel loss.

To help an infant pass the bilirubin in their stools more effectively, newborns might need more frequent feedings of breast milk, or might need to supplement with formula. A doctor might recommend that a mother stop breastfeeding temporarily.

There is a simple blood test that can be used to screen newborns for elevated levels of bilirubin. As a parent, it’s important to know the signs of jaundice in infants. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have about jaundice or other health conditions that can affect infants.

At HealthONE our highly experienced staff delivers more than 13,000 babies each year — accounting for 30% of all babies born in the Denver metro area. More expectant moms trust HealthONE for superior prenatal, labor and delivery care.