Jaundice in babies: Causes and symptoms

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Everything you need to know about newborn jaundice. 

Newborn jaundice is a common condition. Most parents will first recognise it by a yellowing of the skin in their baby. But fear not, they won't be auditioning for The Simpson's any time soon. While jaundice can feel like a big deal at the time of diagnosis, especially if it's in the first few days and weeks after a baby is born, it is not generally harmful. 


In order to understand newborn jaundice, it's important to know it is part of a normal body process caused by the build-up of a body substance called Bilirubin. Bilirubin is a waste product produced when red blood cells are broken down, which the liver helps to remove. Babies are more at risk of jaundice due to a high number of red blood cells, which are broken down and replaced frequently. They also have a relatively immature liver, which is less effective at removing bilirubin.


Breastfed babies are more like to develop newborn jaundice, which is why it is also sometimes referred to as 'breast milk jaundice'. The thought behind this is a substance in breast milk, which blocks part of the processes that break down bilirubin in the liver. Jaundice symptoms may last longer in breasfed babies, however it is not usually a reason to stop breastfeeding. 


Jaundice in babies: Symptoms


As a rule, jaundice symptoms tend to first appear when babies are two to three days old, and, as the liver matures, generally resolve after a couple of weeks. The main symptoms are yellowing of the skin and whitening of the eyes, but other symptoms of jaundice can include:


  • Pale coloured or cloud like poo

  • Very dark urine

  • Dark yellow soles of hands or feet


Midwives, health visitors and doctors will all look out for signs of newborn jaundice during routine checks. If you are worried about jaundice or your baby in any other way, it is important to seek help.


Jaundice in babies: Treatment 


If Jaundice is suspected, the level of bilirubin in the blood needs to be measured. This is usually done by taking a small sample of blood from your babies heel. The level is measured because Jaundice requires treatment when levels of Bilirubin become too high. If the level of bilirubin becomes too high, there is a small risk that bilirubin can pass into the brain causing brain damage. This is very rare, and is known as a condition called Kernicterus.


In approximately one in 20 babies, the level of bilirubin in the blood is high enough to require treatment for jaundice. This normally means admission to hospital for one of two treatments:


  • Phototherapy – this is the most commonly used treatment for jaundice, which involves babies and being placed under a special light that helps to turn bilirubin into a form that the liver can cope with more easily.

  • Exchange transfusion – this is only used with very high levels of bilirubin, and involves babies receiving blood from a matching donor.


Some babies may never require treatment for jaundice, with any symptoms naturally resolving within two weeks after birth. In a small number of cases, jaundice may be present before 24 hours of age, and persist longer than two weeks. In these cases it is important to exclude any underlying health conditions, including liver disease and some infections, thyroid and blood conditions, that can cause jaundice. 


If you have any concerns, contact your GP, who will be able to talk to you about these, and any further investigations that may be needed. For more information on newborn jaundice, visit the NHS website


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