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). For babies born before 37 weeks gestation it is more common, affecting eight out of ten premature babies. 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, 2019b; NHS, 2018a). So it’s important to contact your GP if you are concerned.
What is newborn jaundice?
Newborn, or neonatal, jaundice is a common and usually harmless condition in newborn babies that causes yellowing skin and eyes (NHS, 2018a).
What causes newborn jaundice?
A baby can develop jaundice because of the build-up of bilirubin, which is yellow, in the blood. Bilirubin is broken down red blood cells that your baby no longer needs. Newborn babies have a lot of red blood cells in their blood, which are being broken down and replaced frequently.
When your baby was in your womb, the placenta removed these waste products. In the early days, your baby’s body can take a while to effectively break down its bilirubin.
Once your baby reaches about two weeks old, their liver is better at processing the bilirubin. That means their jaundice usually gets better and does not cause them any harm (NHS, 2018a).
What are the signs of newborn jaundice?
Jaundice is often noticed by a yellowing of the skin on the face or body.
On black and brown skin, it might be more obvious as yellowing to the palms of the baby's hands or soles of their feet, or inside their mouth. The whites of their eyes may also appear yellow (NHS 2022).
Other than yellowing, signs of newborn jaundice can include:
dark, yellow urine – your newborn should have colourless urine
pale poo – their poo will normally be yellow or orange (NHS, 2018a)
After your baby is born they will be given a physical examination, which might pick up signs of jaundice. Sometimes your baby will show signs of jaundice a few days later, when you may already be home.
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).
If your baby has very high levels of bilirubin in their blood, they might need treatment.
Breastfeeding and newborn jaundice
Breastfeeding your baby increases their chance of developing jaundice. But there's no need to stop breastfeeding your baby if they have jaundice as the symptoms normally pass in a few weeks. The benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential risks associated with the condition (NHS, 2018c).
Talk to your GP or health visitor if your baby has jaundice and doesn't seem to be feeding well, or the jaundice looks like it is getting worse.
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 change the bilirubin 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.
Most babies respond well to treatment and can leave hospital after a few days.
Complications of newborn jaundice
A few newborns with jaundice may have an underlying health condition, especially if they developed jaundice within 24 hours of the birth (NHS, 2018).
There is a very small risk of a serious complication of untreated jaundice in which bilirubin passes into the brain or central nervous system and causes brain damage. This is called kernicterus, and is very rare in the UK, affecting less than one in every 100,000 babies born (NHS, 2018b).
If your baby develops signs of jaundice at home, it's a good idea to 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).
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 (NHS, 2018a). With continued breastfeeding the jaundice should go away given time. Other reasons for prolonged jaundice include an infection, thyroid problems or, rarely, childhood liver disease (NHS, 2018c).
It’s a good idea to check the colour of your baby’s poos against the shades in this chart. You could contact your GP if your baby’s poos are very pale, if their urine is yellow rather than clear, or you are worried and your baby’s jaundice lasts longer than two weeks (three weeks for a premature baby) (CLDF, 2019b).
Find out more about newborn jaundice from the Children's Liver Disease Foundation.
This page was last reviewed in March 2021.
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Find out more information about newborn jaundice from the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation.
CLDF. (2019) Yellow alert. Available at: https://childliverdisease.org/healthcare-professionals/yellow-alert/ [Accessed 24 March 2021].
CLDF. (2019) Baby jaundice. Available at: https://childliverdisease.org/liver-information/baby-jaundice/ (Accessed 24 March 2021).
NHS. (2018a) Newborn jaundice. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/jaundice-newborn/ [Accessed 24 March 2021].
NHS (2018b) Kernicterus – Newborn Jaudince. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/jaundice-newborn/complications/ [Accessed 24 March 2021]
NHS(2018c) Causes Newborn Jaundice. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/jaundice-newborn/causes/ [Accessed 24 March 2021]