Are your newborn baby's skin or eyes yellow? Is she extremely tired and doesn't want to eat? Your baby may have jaundice.
Newborn jaundice happens when your baby has high levels of bilirubin in her blood. This yellow pigment is created in the body during the normal recycling of old red blood cells. The liver helps break bilirubin down so it can be removed from the body in the stool. Before a baby is born, the placenta removes the bilirubin from your baby so it can be processed by your liver. Right after birth, the baby's own liver takes over the job, but it can take time. Most babies have some jaundice. It usually appears between the second and third day after birth.
Often babies get a screening test in the first 24 hours of life to predict if they are likely to develop jaundice. Your baby's doctor will also watch for signs of jaundice at the hospital, and during follow-up visits after your baby goes home. If your baby seems to have jaundice, the doctor will test the bilirubin levels in her blood.
So, how do you treat newborn jaundice?
Jaundice usually goes away on its own, so treatment is usually not necessary. If your baby's bilirubin level is too high or rising too quickly, however, she may need treatment.
You'll need to keep the baby well hydrated with breast milk or formula. Feeding up to 12 times a day will encourage frequent bowel movements, which help to remove the bilirubin. If your baby needs treatment in the hospital, she may be placed under special blue lights that help break down bilirubin in the baby's skin. This treatment is called phototherapy. If your baby's bilirubin level isn't rising too quickly, you can also do phototherapy at home with a fiberoptic blanket that contains tiny bright lights.
For most babies, it takes about a week or two for jaundice to go away. Very high levels of bilirubin, however, can damage a baby's brain. The good news is that this condition, called kernicterus, is almost always diagnosed long before bilirubin levels become high enough to cause damage, and phototherapy treatment will usually make it go away.
Review Date: 2/18/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.