Neonatal Jaundice: What is it?


You may notice a slight yellow discolouration of your baby’s skin and the whites of their eyes a few days after they are born. This is called jaundice and it is very common, it is estimated 6 out of 10 newborn babies develop jaundice.

Newborn babies are born with higher levels of red blood cells and these need to be broken down and replaced. The breakdown of red blood cells produces bilirubin, which needs to be cleared out from the body by passing through the liver. This process of clearing it out of the body can often be a little slow after birth as the liver is not yet fully mature. Therefore the bilirubin stays in the bloodstream and makes the skin look yellow.

The symptoms of newborn jaundice usually appear on day 2-3 after birth and last until around 2 weeks of age. The yellow discolouration of skin usually starts on the head and face and then may spread down to their chest and stomach, then along the arms and legs. Jaundice does not usually need to be treated and will often resolve by itself but there are some signs you will need to look out for to help determine if your baby will need treatment.

If your baby is very sleepy, is not feeding well and is not passing urine or stools then you must seek medical advice. Always seek medical advice if you feel your baby’s jaundice has reached below their belly button. Regular feeding, passing urine and stools are all helping to flush the bilirubin from their bodies, so if they do not do this regularly then the bilirubin can build up to high levels. If the levels are very high within the blood then it can become harmful if not treated and in very rare cases the bilirubin can pass into the brain and cause brain damage.

The level of jaundice can be measured by either a small handheld machine which shines a light onto your baby’s skin or by a blood test. If treatment is needed it will involve your baby being placed under a special type of light which helps to break down the bilirubin so it can be removed easier from the blood. Your baby will remain under the light and have repeat tests to check the level of bilirubin and treatment will be stopped when the level has dropped to a safer level. You will be able to continue to feed your baby every few hours out of the light but then they will need to go back under. The aim is to expose as much of your baby’s skin as possible to the light for the maximum duration possible aside from feeding and changing their nappy, this will minimise treatment time.

You can help your baby clear jaundice from their skin by waking them to feed regularly and by placing them in as much natural light as possible when they are at home (although never in direct sunlight). Seek medical advice if you feel your baby’s jaundice is not improving or seems to be worsening if your baby is lethargic and difficult to rouse or is not feeding well.

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