mum kissing newborn baby

Newborn jaundice is common and causes yellowed skin and eyes. We discuss the symptoms, treatment and signs there might be cause for concern.

About six in 10 babies have newborn jaundice although it usually clears up within two weeks, or three weeks if your baby is premature (NHS, 2018). If your baby develops jaundice, it’s not necessarily a sign your baby is ill.

Prolonged jaundice, however, could indicate an underlying health condition like childhood liver disease (CLDF, 2018a; NHS, 2018). So it’s important to contact your GP if you are concerned.

What is newborn jaundice?

Newborn jaundice is a common and usually harmless condition in newborn babies that causes yellowing skin and eyes (CLDF, 2018b).  This condition is also known as neonatal jaundice.

What causes newborn jaundice?

Your baby has jaundice because of the build-up of bilirubin, which is yellow, in the blood. It’s the breakdown of red blood cells that produces bilirubin. Newborn babies have a lot of red blood cells in their blood, which are being broken down and replaced frequently (NHS, 2018)

In the early days, your baby’s body can take a while to effectively break down its own waste products like bilirubin, so they might have a build-up of it. When your baby was in your womb, the placenta removed any waste products (CLDF, 2018b).

Once your baby reaches about two weeks old, their liver is better at processing bilirubin. That means their jaundice usually gets better and does not cause them any harm (NHS, 2018).

What are the symptoms of newborn jaundice?

After your baby is born they will be given a newborn physical examination, which might pick up signs of newborn jaundice. Your baby might show signs of jaundice a few days after their birth, when you may already be home. Symptoms usually appear two or three days after they’re born (NHS, 2018).

Premature babies are more prone to jaundice. It can take five to seven days for jaundice to appear in premature babies and it usually lasts about three weeks (CLDF, 2018b).

Other than yellowing skin and whites of their eyes, symptoms of newborn jaundice can include:

  • yellow palms of the hands or soles of the feet 
  • dark, yellow urine – your newborn should have colourless urine
  • pale poo – their poo should be yellow or orange. 

(CLDF, 2018a; NHS, 2018)

If your baby has very high levels of bilirubin in their blood, they might need treatment (NHS, 2018).

Treatment for newborn jaundice

Around one in 20 babies has blood bilirubin levels high enough to need treatment.

If needed, two main treatments can be used in hospital to quickly lower your baby's bilirubin levels. These are:

  • phototherapy, which is where your baby is put under a special type of light that can to change the bilirubin slightly into a form that’s easier for their liver to break down
  • an exchange transfusion – a type of blood transfusion where small amounts of your baby's blood are removed and replaced with matching donor blood.

(NHS, 2018)

Most babies respond well to treatment and can leave hospital after a few days.

Complications of newborn jaundice

A few newborns with jaundice have an underlying health condition, especially if they developed jaundice within 24 hours of the birth (NHS, 2018).

If this is the case, there's a very small risk of a serious complication in which bilirubin passes into the brain and causes brain damage. This is called kernicterus. Kernicterus is very rare in the UK, affecting less than one in every 100,000 babies born (NHS, 2018).

If your baby develops signs of jaundice at home, speak to your midwife, health visitor or GP as soon as possible for advice. Newborn jaundice isn't usually a cause for concern but it's important to check whether your baby needs treatment (NHS, 2018).

Prolonged jaundice

A number of things can make your baby’s jaundice last beyond the usual two to three (if premature) weeks. Occasionally, babies who are completely well and are being breastfed might continue to have jaundice. If this is your baby, you can continue breastfeeding and the jaundice will go away given time. Other reasons for prolonged jaundice include an infection, thyroid problems or, rarely, childhood liver disease (CLDF, 2018b).

It’s a good idea to check the colour of your baby’s poos against the shades in this chart. Contact your GP if your baby’s poos are very pale or you are worried and your baby’s jaundice lasts longer than two weeks (three weeks for a premature baby) (CLDF, 2018c).

This page was last reviewed in May 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Find out more information about newborn jaundice from the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation.  

CLDF (Children’s Liver Disease Foundation). (2018a) Yellow alert. Available at:  https://childliverdisease.org/healthcare-professionals/yellow-alert/ [Accessed 8th May 2018].

CLDF (Children’s Liver Disease Foundation). (2018b) Jaundice in the newborn baby. Available at:  https://www.childliverdisease.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Jaundice-in-the-newborn-baby.pdf [Accessed 8th May 2018].

CLDF (Children’s Liver Disease Foundation). (2018c) Baby jaundice. Available at: https://childliverdisease.org/liver-information/baby-jaundice/ (Accessed 8th May 2018).

NHS. (2018) Newborn jaundice. Available at:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/jaundice-newborn/ [Accessed 8th May 2018].

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