Jaundice is a common and usually harmless condition in newborn babies that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. The medical term for jaundice in babies is neonatal jaundice.

Other symptoms of newborn jaundice can include:

  • yellowing of the palms of the handsor soles of the feet
  • dark, yellowurine a newborn baby's urine should be colourless
  • pale-colouredpoo it should beyellow or orange

The symptoms of newborn jaundice usually develop two to three days after the birth andtend toget better without treatment by the time the baby is about two weeks old.

While jaundice isn't usually a cause for concern, it's important to determine whether your baby needs treatment.

If your baby is being monitored for jaundice at home, it's also important to contact your midwife urgently iftheirsymptomsquickly get worse or they become very reluctant to feed.

Bilirubin is a yellow substance produced when red blood cells are broken down.

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 fully developed, so it's less effective at removing the bilirubin from the blood.

By the time a baby is about two weeks old,their liver is more effective at processing bilirubin, sojaundice often corrects itself by this age without causing any harm.

In a small number of cases, jaundice can be the sign of an underlying health condition. This is often the case if jaundice develops shortly after birth (within the first 24 hours).

It's estimated 6 out of every 10 babies develop jaundice, including 8 out of 10 babies born prematurely (babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy).

However,only around 1 in 20 babies has a blood bilirubin level high enough to need treatment.

For reasons that are unclear, breastfeeding a baby increases the risk of them developing jaundice, which can often persist for a month or longer.In most cases,thebenefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any risks associated with jaundice.

Treating newborn jaundice

Most cases of jaundice in babies don't need treatment as the symptoms normally pass within 10 to 14 days, although symptoms can last longerin a minority of cases.

Treatment is usually only recommended if tests showa baby has very high levels of bilirubin in their blood because there's a small risk the bilirubin could pass into the brain and cause brain damage.

There aretwo main treatments that can be carried out in hospitalto quickly reduce your baby's bilirubin levels. These are:

  • phototherapy a special type of light shines on the skin, which alters the bilirubin into a form that can be more easily broken down by the liver
  • an exchange transfusion a type of blood transfusionwhere small amounts of your baby's blood are removed and replaced with blood from a matching donor

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

This is known as kernicterus.

Kernicterusis very rare in the UK, affecting less than 1 in every 100,000 babies born. There wereeight hospital admissions for kernicterus in Englandin 2013-14.

Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 24 Nov 2016