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Newborn Jaundice: What Parents Should Know

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Newborn jaundice is prevalent, affecting approximately 60% of infants globally. It is a condition characterized by elevated bilirubin levels in the bloodstream, leading to yellowing of the skin and eyes. Parents must understand what newborn jaundice is, how to recognize it, and when to seek medical attention. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive guide for parents on understanding newborn jaundice, recognizing the signs and symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, prevention, and management. With this information, parents can make informed decisions about their child's health and well-being.

Understanding Newborn Jaundice

Newborn jaundice is a common condition that affects many newborns worldwide. Jaundice occurs when bilirubin, a yellow pigment found in the blood, accumulates in the body, causing the skin and whites of the eyes to turn yellow. There are various causes of newborn jaundice, including prematurity, blood group incompatibility, and certain infections.

Bilirubin is produced when red blood cells break down, and the liver processes it before it's excreted from the body. However, newborn livers often aren't fully developed, making it challenging to process bilirubin. This occurs due to an excess of bilirubin, which is usually harmless, but in some cases, it can lead to high levels of bilirubin in the bloodstream, increasing the risk of brain damage.

There are two primary types of newborn jaundice: physiologic jaundice and pathologic jaundice. Physiologic jaundice is the most common type, usually appearing 2-3 days after birth and typically resolving on its own within a week. Pathologic jaundice, on the other hand, is less common but more severe, indicating an underlying medical problem that requires urgent medical attention. It can appear within 24 hours of birth and last longer than normal jaundice.

It's important for parents to be aware of the different types of jaundice to understand when to seek professional medical advice. Bilirubin levels that continue to rise or fail to decrease warrant further investigation, and parents should seek medical attention if they notice prolonged yellowing in their infant's skin or eyes. Parents can play a crucial role in monitoring their newborn's health and should always consult a healthcare provider for further information.

Signs and Symptoms of Newborn Jaundice

Newborn jaundice is a common and typically harmless condition that affects many infants. However, it's essential to keep an eye out for the following signs and symptoms, which may indicate more severe cases of jaundice:

  1. Yellowing of the skin and eyes:
  2. One of the most common signs of jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes. This yellow color appears because of the accumulation of bilirubin, which is typically cleared by the liver. If bilirubin levels are high, there can be a buildup that causes the yellow tint to appear.

  3. Changes in behavior and feeding habits:
  4. If your baby becomes more fussy or irritable than usual, it may be a sign of jaundice. Additionally, your baby may not want to feed as much as usual, which can make them more sleepy or lethargic. It's important to note that these changes in behavior can be caused by other factors, so consulting with a healthcare professional is vital.

  5. When to seek medical attention:
  6. Most cases of jaundice resolve on their own within a few weeks. However, if you notice any of the signs and symptoms mentioned above, or if you're feeling uneasy about your baby's condition, contact your pediatrician immediately. In some cases, jaundice can require medical treatment to prevent complications.

As parents, it's essential to be aware of the signs and symptoms of newborn jaundice to ensure the health and well-being of your infant. While jaundice is typically a temporary and benign condition, it's important to monitor your baby and seek medical attention if necessary.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Newborn Jaundice

Newborn jaundice is a common condition that can occur in up to 60% of babies. It occurs when the levels of bilirubin increase in the infant's blood, causing yellowing of the skin and eyes. Fortunately, in most cases, the condition goes away within a few weeks without causing any harm. However, in severe cases, it can lead to brain damage and other complications, emphasizing the need for early diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnostic Tests for Newborn Jaundice
Doctors can diagnose newborn jaundice by checking the baby's skin and eye color. Blood tests are also used to check the level of bilirubin present in the baby's blood. The doctor may advise additional tests based on the baby's health to rule out any underlying health issues that could be causing the bilirubin level to rise.

Use of Phototherapy and Exchange Transfusions
Phototherapy is the first line of treatment for severe jaundice. It uses light to break down bilirubin in the baby's body, allowing it to be excreted more quickly. In more severe cases, exchange transfusions may be required. This procedure involves replacing some of the baby's blood with donor blood to lower bilirubin levels.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Some parents may be wary of conventional treatment options and prefer alternative and complementary therapies. Some alternative treatments include herbal remedies, acupuncture, and chiropractic adjustments. While these therapies may be helpful in some cases, parents should always discuss this with their doctor before starting any alternative treatment.

Parents should remember that newborn jaundice is treatable. The key is getting an early diagnosis and treatment, which involves medical care and monitoring of the infant's bilirubin levels. Rest assured that most babies with jaundice get better without any severe health issues.

Prevention and Management of Newborn Jaundice

Newborn jaundice is a common and often harmless medical condition that affects many infants. Although it typically resolves on its own within a few weeks, there are steps that can be taken to both prevent and manage this condition. Here are some ways to prevent and manage newborn jaundice:

Early and frequent feedings: One of the best ways to prevent and manage newborn jaundice is by frequently feeding your baby, as this helps their body to process bilirubin more efficiently. Breastfeeding is ideal, as breast milk contains nutrients and antibodies that can help to improve your baby's health and immune system.

Skin-to-skin contact: Another effective way of managing newborn jaundice is through skin-to-skin contact. This allows your baby to regulate their body temperature and stimulates the release of hormones and enzymes that can help to reduce bilirubin levels.

Follow-up care and monitoring: Although most cases of newborn jaundice do not require any treatment, it is important to follow up with your doctor or healthcare provider to ensure that your baby's bilirubin levels are within a safe range. This may involve regular check-ups, blood tests, and other diagnostic procedures.

By following these prevention and management strategies, parents can help to protect their newborn baby's health and ensure that they receive the best possible care.


As we've seen, newborn jaundice is a common condition that affects many infants in their first week of life. While it is a natural biological process, it is essential for parents and caregivers to understand newborn jaundice and its implications on their baby's health. Early detection, diagnosis, and treatment are crucial in preventing complications that may arise from severe cases of newborn jaundice.

We cannot overstate the importance of seeking medical attention when parents suspect their baby has jaundice. Pediatricians are there to support the family and ensure the baby's health and well-being. It is also vital for parents, friends, and relatives to understand and support each other, especially in the first few days after birth.

Finally, we hope this article has provided a helpful guide to understanding newborn jaundice. For parents looking for more information, we recommend checking out resources from the Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Armed with knowledge, parents can be confident in identifying, treating, and preventing health concerns relating to newborn jaundice.


  1. What is newborn jaundice?

    Newborn jaundice is a condition characterized by yellowing of the skin and eyes of newborns.

  2. Is newborn jaundice a serious condition?

    In most cases, newborn jaundice is a common and harmless condition that resolves on its own within a few weeks. However, in rare cases, it can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

  3. What causes newborn jaundice?

    Newborn jaundice is often a result of the liver's inability to process bilirubin efficiently. This may be due to an immature liver, red blood cell breakdown, or other medical conditions.

  4. When should I seek medical attention for my newborn's jaundice?

    If your newborn's jaundice appears to be severe, if they are not feeding well or showing signs of lethargy, or if the yellowing persists beyond two weeks, it's important to seek medical attention right away.

  5. What can I do to prevent or manage newborn jaundice?

    Feeding your baby frequently and on demand, providing plenty of skin-to-skin contact, and ensuring proper follow-up care and monitoring can all help prevent and manage newborn jaundice.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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