What is jaundice in newborns?

Jaundice in newborns happens when there’s an overload of bilirubin in a baby’s blood. This can make the baby’s skin and eye whites go yellow.

Bilirubin is a waste product from the normal breakdown of old red blood cells. Usually, the liver processes bilirubin and mixes it into bile. Bile then goes from the liver to the digestive tract and finally comes out of the body in poo.

This normal process can change for several reasons in newborns, creating a bilirubin overload and resulting in newborn jaundice.

Physiological jaundice
In physiological jaundice, babies’ livers aren’t yet developed enough to get rid of bilirubin.

This type of jaundice is very common in newborns. It usually gets better when your baby’s liver is mature enough to process bilirubin properly.

Breastmilk jaundice
Breastfed babies often get breastmilk jaundice. This is when a chemical in the mother’s breastmilk interferes with the baby’s ability to get rid of bilirubin. This type of jaundice often happens a few days after birth.

Breastmilk jaundice isn’t harmful and usually sorts itself out after several weeks.

Blood type incompatibility jaundice
One rare type of jaundice happens when the mother’s and the baby’s blood groups are incompatible.

This isn’t usually a problem during a first pregnancy because the mother’s and the baby’s bloodstreams don’t mix. But during the delivery, some of the baby’s blood might mix with the mother’s blood. The mother then develops antibodies that become active during her next pregnancy and cross the placenta to attack a second baby’s red blood cells.

The destruction of these red blood cells in the second baby releases bilirubin into that baby’s bloodstream, which results in jaundice. If this happens, you usually see it in the first 24 hours after birth.

Babies with this kind of jaundice need treatment.

Biliary atresia
Biliary atresia is a rare cause of jaundice in babies.

It happens when the tiny tubes that carry bile from the liver to the intestine get scarred. Babies with this condition usually grow normally and look well at first, but they get very ill with serious liver disease if they aren’t diagnosed and treated early.

Babies with this kind of jaundice usually start to show signs around 2-8 weeks of age.

Babies with this kind of jaundice need treatment.

Symptoms of jaundice in newborns

Newborn jaundice causes your baby’s skin and the whites of her eyes to go a yellow colour. The jaundice typically starts on the face and head.

If the level of bilirubin increases, the colour spreads to the body. Babies might also be drowsy and have feeding difficulties.

Babies with biliary atresia also have pale-looking poo and darker urine.

Does your newborn need to see a doctor about jaundice?

Yes. Your child and family health nurse, midwife, GP or paediatrician should check and monitor your newborn for jaundice.

You should take your baby to the GP if:

  • your baby is unwell, feeding poorly and not gaining enough weight
  • your baby’s poo becomes pale or your baby’s wee becomes dark
  • you can see that your baby is jaundiced.

Tests for jaundice in newborns

Medical staff might measure the level of your baby’s jaundice using a bilirubinometer, which is a special machine that’s briefly placed on your baby’s skin. But they might also need to do a heel prick test to get a more accurate measurement of the level of bilirubin in your baby’s blood.

Sometimes if the levels of jaundice are high or medical staff are worried that your baby has a more serious condition, your baby will need other tests to find the cause.

Treatment of jaundice in newborns

Treatment for newborn jaundice depends on how bad it is and what has caused it.

Babies who develop jaundice several days after birth usually just need careful monitoring. These babies don’t usually have to stay in hospital.

If your baby’s bilirubin levels are high, he might have phototherapy treatment for a few days. This treatment uses ultraviolet light to break down the bilirubin overload. Your baby will be placed naked in a cot under a blue phototherapy lamp for 2-3 days. His eyes will be covered for protection.

Most babies cope with phototherapy treatment well. Phototherapy has minimal side effects, although your baby might have a mild rash and runny poo for a few days. Some babies have small fluid losses during phototherapy, so they might need extra feeds at this time.

Severe jaundice, in which bilirubin levels are very high, might need treatment with an exchange transfusion. This is when a baby’s own blood is replaced with compatible fresh blood. This isn’t common and usually happens due to blood type incompatibility jaundice.

If your baby has jaundice caused by biliary atresia, she’ll need an urgent operation to help with bile drainage.

If your baby has breastmilk jaundice, it doesn’t mean that you need to stop breastfeeding. This type of jaundice is usually mild and should get better by itself with time. Talk with your child and family health nurse or doctor if you’re worried about what to do.

Prevention of jaundice in newborns

Only jaundice caused by a certain type of blood incompatibility is preventable.

If your doctor or health professional thinks this type of jaundice might be a problem, you’ll get an anti-D injection immediately after delivery. This can prevent complications in subsequent pregnancies.