Causes of jaundice in newborn babies

Jaundice is caused by too much bilirubin in the blood. This is known as hyperbilirubinaemia.

Bilirubin is a yellow substance produced when red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, are broken down.

The bilirubin travels in the bloodstream to the liver. The liver changes the form of the bilirubin so it can be passed out of the body in poo.

However, if there's too much bilirubin in the blood or the liver can't get rid of it,excess bilirubin causes jaundice.

Jaundice in babies

Jaundice is common in newborn babies because babies have a high level of red blood cells in their blood,which are broken down and replaced frequently.

The liver in newborn babies is also not yet fully developed, so it's less effective at processing the bilirubin and removing it from the blood.

This means the level of bilirubin in babies can be about twice as high as in adults.

By the time a baby is around two weeks old, they're producing less bilirubin and their liver is more effective at removing it from the body. This means the jaundiceoften corrects itself by this point without causing any harm.


Breastfeeding your babycan increase their chances of developing jaundice. However, 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.

If your baby needs to be treated for jaundice, he or she may need extra fluids and more frequent feeds during treatment. See treating newborn jaundice for more information.

The reason why breastfed babies are more likely to develop jaundice is unclear, although a number of theories have been suggested. For example, it may be that breast milk contains certain substances that reduce the ability of the liver to process bilirubin.

Newborn jaundice thought to be linked to breastfeeding is sometimes called breast milk jaundice.

Underlying health conditions

In some cases, jaundice may be the result of another health problem. This is sometimes called pathological jaundice.

Some causes of pathological jaundice include:

  • an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) where the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough hormones
  • blood group incompatibility when the mother and baby have different blood types, and these are mixed during the pregnancy or the birth
  • rhesus factor disease a condition that can occur if the mother has rhesus-negative blood and the baby has rhesus-positive blood
  • a urinary tract infection
  • Crigler-Najjar syndrome an inherited condition that affects the enzyme responsible for processing bilirubin
  • a blockage or problemin the bile ducts and gallbladder these create and transport bile, a fluid used to help digest fatty foods

An inherited enzyme deficiency known as glucose 6 phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) could also lead to jaundice or kernicterus .

If you have a family history of G6PD, it's important to let your midwife, GPor paediatrician know andyour baby's jaundice symptoms are closely monitored.

Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.
The intestines are the part of the digestive system between the stomach and the anus that digests and absorbs food and liquid.
The liver is the largest organ in the body. Its main jobs are to secrete bile (to help digestion), detoxify the blood and change food into energy.
Oxygen is an odourless, colourless gas that makes up about 20% of the air we breathe.
Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 24 Nov 2016