Infant jaundice is yellow discoloration of a newborn baby's skin and eyes. Infant jaundice occurs because the baby's blood contains an excess of bilirubin (bil-ih-ROO-bin), a yellow pigment of red blood cells.
Infant jaundice is a common condition, particularly in babies born before 38 weeks' gestation (preterm babies) and some breast-fed babies. Infant jaundice usually occurs because a baby's liver isn't mature enough to get rid of bilirubin in the bloodstream. In some babies, an underlying disease may cause infant jaundice.
Most infants born between 35 weeks' gestation and full term need no treatment for jaundice. Rarely, an unusually high blood level of bilirubin can place a newborn at risk of brain damage, particularly in the presence of certain risk factors for severe jaundice.
Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes — the main sign of infant jaundice — usually appears between the second and fourth day after birth.
To check for infant jaundice, press gently on your baby's forehead or nose. If the skin looks yellow where you pressed, it's likely your baby has mild jaundice. If your baby doesn't have jaundice, the skin color should simply look slightly lighter than its normal color for a moment.
Examine your baby in good lighting conditions, preferably in natural daylight.
Most hospitals have a policy of examining babies for jaundice before discharge. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that newborns be examined for jaundice during routine medical checks and at least every eight to 12 hours while in the hospital.
Your baby should be examined for jaundice between the third and seventh day after birth, when bilirubin levels usually peak. If your baby is discharged earlier than 72 hours after birth, make a follow-up appointment to look for jaundice within two days of discharge.
The following signs or symptoms may indicate severe jaundice or complications from excess bilirubin. Call your doctor if:
Excess bilirubin (hyperbilirubinemia) is the main cause of jaundice. Bilirubin, which is responsible for the yellow color of jaundice, is a normal part of the pigment released from the breakdown of "used" red blood cells.
Newborns produce more bilirubin than adults do because of greater production and faster breakdown of red blood cells in the first few days of life. Normally, the liver filters bilirubin from the bloodstream and releases it into the intestinal tract. A newborn's immature liver often can't remove bilirubin quickly enough, causing an excess of bilirubin. Jaundice due to these normal newborn conditions is called physiologic jaundice, and it typically appears on the second or third day of life.
An underlying disorder may cause infant jaundice. In these cases, jaundice often appears much earlier or much later than does the more common form of infant jaundice. Diseases or conditions that can cause jaundice include:
Major risk factors for jaundice, particularly severe jaundice that can cause complications, include:
High levels of bilirubin that cause severe jaundice can result in serious complications if not treated.
Bilirubin is toxic to cells of the brain. If a baby has severe jaundice, there's a risk of bilirubin passing into the brain, a condition called acute bilirubin encephalopathy. Prompt treatment may prevent significant lasting damage.
Signs of acute bilirubin encephalopathy in a baby with jaundice include:
Kernicterus is the syndrome that occurs if acute bilirubin encephalopathy causes permanent damage to the brain. Kernicterus may result in:
The best preventive of infant jaundice is adequate feeding. Breast-fed infants should have eight to 12 feedings a day for the first several days of life. Formula-fed infants usually should have 1 to 2 ounces (about 30 to 60 milliliters) of formula every two to three hours for the first week.
Your doctor will likely diagnose infant jaundice on the basis of your baby's appearance. However, it's still necessary to measure the level of bilirubin in your baby's blood. The level of bilirubin (severity of jaundice) will determine the course of treatment. Tests to detect jaundice and measure bilirubin include:
Your doctor may order additional blood tests or urine tests if there's evidence that your baby's jaundice is caused by an underlying disorder.
Mild infant jaundice often disappears on its own within two or three weeks. For moderate or severe jaundice, your baby may need to stay longer in the newborn nursery or be readmitted to the hospital.
Treatments to lower the level of bilirubin in your baby's blood may include:
When infant jaundice isn't severe, your doctor may recommend changes in feeding habits that can lower levels of bilirubin. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about how much or how often your baby is feeding or if you're having trouble breast-feeding. The following steps may lessen jaundice:
Bilirubin levels in the blood tend to peak when your baby is between three and seven days old. So it's important for your doctor to examine your baby for jaundice during that time.
When your baby is discharged from the hospital, your doctor or nurse will look for jaundice. If your baby has jaundice, your doctor will assess the likelihood of severe jaundice based on a number of factors:
If risk factors for severe jaundice are present, your doctor may recommend a follow-up visit a day or two after the baby leaves the hospital.
When you arrive for your follow-up appointment, be prepared to answer the following questions.
You may also prepare questions to ask your doctor at your follow-up appointment, including: