Jaundice: What You Need to Know

Learn how to spot and treat this common condition in newborns.

jaundice in newborns Shutterstock
If your newborn's skin and the white parts of the eyes start turning yellow, there's no need to panic. That's likely jaundice, a common newborn condition that sometimes goes away on its own. However, you should always call your baby’s pediatrician if you notice it, because some severe cases may require treatment to prevent more serious complications. Here's how to tell if your baby has this condition and what treatment—if any—is needed.

What is jaundice?

The yellow color in a newborn's skin and white parts of the eyes is caused when a chemical called bilirubin—an enzyme released when old red blood cells are broken down in the body—builds up in the blood. In older babies, children, and adults, bilirubin typically passes through the liver, where it's broken down even more, released into the intestines as bile, and passed out of the body in the stool. However, because a newborn's still-developing liver might not be able to remove bilirubin quickly enough, the enzyme builds up in the blood, causing the skin and eyes to take on a yellowish cast. This is particularly common in premature babies, whose bodies are even less developed and can't pass the bilirubin effectively.

Jaundice can also happen if a breastfeeding baby isn't getting enough milk due to breastfeeding problems, or—even more rarely—a substance in the breast milk is temporarily causing the baby's bilirubin levels to rise.

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

The telltale sign — yellowing of the skin — can occur within 24 hours of birth or gradually appear over the first few days. It starts at the head and works its way down the body, and can be difficult to see, especially in babies with dark skin. If you're unsure whether your baby has the condition, there's an easy way to check: "Take a clean finger and depress gently on the baby's chest or abdomen," said Danelle Fisher, M.D., chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's in Santa Monica, CA. "If the skin color looks yellow when the skin blanches, that can tell you how jaundiced the baby is."

How is jaundice treated?

Most mild cases require no treatment and the condition goes away within one to two weeks as your baby's liver matures and is able to remove bilirubin efficiently on its own. But even in mild cases, Dr. Fisher said you should always check in with your pediatrician. "It is common for babies to get mild jaundice after birth, but there is a point when it can be too much and the baby will need treatment," she said. Left untreated, your baby may be at risk for developing deafness, cerebral palsy, or other forms of brain damage.

For more severe cases, your doctor may recommend more frequent feedings (to help pass the bilirubin through the stools). Or, you may be instructed to bring your baby back to the hospital to spend some time under a special light called a bili light, which breaks down excess bilirubin so it can be secreted naturally.

When should you call the doctor?

If your baby has jaundice immediately following birth, your doctor will probably want her to spend more time in the hospital for treatment; if you're already home and you suspect your newborn has jaundice, call your pediatrician. Additionally, Dr. Fisher said to call if your baby has no urine or stool in 24 hours, or if your baby is too sleepy to eat well.