Infant jaundice is a yellow discoloration in a newborn baby’s skin, body tissues, fluids and eyes. Infant jaundice occurs because the baby’s blood contains an excess of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a normal pigment made when red blood cells break down in the body. It is usually processed by the liver, recycled and eliminated in the baby’s stool. Jaundice is common in newborns. This is because all newborn babies are born with more red blood cells than they need. These extra red blood cells break down, releasing bilirubin into the blood.

Feeding (especially breastfeeding) your baby often in the first hours and days after birth helps reduce the risk of jaundice. Your baby will pass more stool, and the milk gives your baby’s liver the energy it needs to process the bilirubin. In newborns who do not feed very well, more bilirubin is reabsorbed from the gut before the body gets rid of it. This is the most common reason for jaundice in newborns.

Some other factors that may contribute to jaundice are prematurity, an infection, metabolic imbalances, or other conditions that make red blood cells easy to break down. Liver, intestinal, or gut problems can cause the body to get rid of bilirubin more slowly than usual, which can lead to jaundice.

Most jaundice is not harmful to your baby. It usually shows up during the baby’s first three to five days of life. Then it disappears as the baby’s body learns to deal with bilirubin. It’s uncommon for babies to have such high levels of bilirubin that they’re at risk; however, in some situations high levels can affect a baby’s brain.

A health-care professional will watch your baby’s bilirubin levels in the hospital to make sure they aren’t too high. If your baby’s bilirubin levels are higher than normal, he’ll be treated with special lights (phototherapy) to help lower these levels before any harm can be done.

Call your doctor if your baby shows any of the following symptoms:

  • Refuses feeding
  • He/she is sleepy all the time
  • He/she has lost a significant amount of weight (more than 10 per  cent of his/her weight at birth), or
  • He/she is extremely jaundiced (arms and legs are a yellow or orange colour)

Your doctor will perform a physical examination, often with blood tests, to see how severe your baby’s jaundice is. The doctor can then determine how it should be treated.

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Last updated: 2021-01-21