Jaundice is a common and usually harmless condition in newborn babies that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.
The medical term for jaundice in babies is neonatal jaundice. Jaundice is caused by the build-up of bilirubin in the blood, and is common in newborn babies as their liver is not so effective at removing this excess bilirubin. By the time a baby is about two weeks old, the liver is more effective at removing this bilirubin so jaundice often corrects itself without causing any harm.
Other symptoms of newborn jaundice can include dark, yellow urine (a newborn baby’s urine should be colourless) and pale-coloured poo (it should be yellow or orange).
The symptoms of newborn jaundice usually develop two to three days after the birth and tend to get better without treatment by the time the baby is about two weeks old, or three weeks old if they are born prematurely (before 37 weeks of pregnancy). In a small number of babies, jaundice can be the sign of an underlying health condition. This is often the case if jaundice develops shortly after birth (within the first 24 hours).
Your baby will be examined for signs of jaundice within 72 hours of being born during the newborn physical examination by the paediatrician (baby doctor).
When the midwife and health visitor visits you and your baby at home they will be looking for any signs of jaundice in your baby. While jaundice isn’t usually a cause for concern, it’s important to determine whether your baby needs treatment, so your midwife may take a small amount of your baby’s blood to check their jaundice levels.
If your baby is being monitored for jaundice at home and their symptoms quickly get worse or they become very reluctant to feed, please attend A&E.
How common is jaundice?
It is estimated that six out of every 10 babies develop jaundice, which rises to eight out of 10 in babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks of pregnancy). However, only around 1 in 20 babies has a jaundice level high enough to need treatment.
Treatment of newborn jaundice
Most cases of jaundice in babies don’t need treatment as symptoms normally pass within 10 to 14 days, although in a minority of cases symptoms can last longer.
If tests show a baby has very high levels of bilirubin in their blood, there’s a small risk the bilirubin could pass into the brain and cause brain damage, in which case the baby would receive treatment. Most babies respond well to treatment and can leave hospital after a few days.
Read more about newborn jaundice on the NHS Choices website: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Jaundice-newborn/Pages/Introduction.aspx