What is jaundice?
Jaundice is a word used to describe people with a yellowish
color to their skin and the whites of their eyes. It is caused
by build-up of a chemical called bilirubin [bill-ee-ru-bin]
in the blood. Everyone has some bilirubin in their
body. But when the level is too high, known as
hyperbilirubinemia, it may cause jaundice.
What causes jaundice?
The body makes bilirubin when it breaks
down old red blood cells. The liver gets rid
of bilirubin. Before birth, the mother’s liver
removes bilirubin for the baby. But after birth,
the baby’s liver must remove it. Sometimes the
body makes more bilirubin than the baby’s liver can
handle. Then the bilirubin builds up in the blood and
How common is jaundice?
About 6 in 10 babies have jaundice. In most of
these newborns, bilirubin levels peak a few days
to a week after birth. As the infant feeds, the
bilirubin levels usually decrease on their own.
What factors affect jaundice?
In some babies, the build-up of bilirubin is more
serious. This may occur if the baby:
• is premature
• is not eating well
• has an infection
• has bruising or bleeding inside
• has a sibling who had jaundice
• is of East Asian or Mediterranean descent
• has a different blood type than their mother. This is often called an Rh/ABO incompatibility
These babies are more likely to need treatment for jaundice.
Does jaundice cause permanent problems?
In most cases, jaundice is short-term and causes no lasting
problems. In very severe and/or untreated cases, permanent
health problems can occur. This happens more often in
infants who are very premature or very sick. Early treatment
can help prevent these problems.
What treatment will my baby receive?
• Mild cases of jaundice do not require any treatment. The
bilirubin build-up often goes away within a week after birth.
• Moderate cases of jaundice are most often treated with
special lights. This treatment is called phototherapy. It
helps the baby’s body break down the extra bilirubin.
– Are the lights safe? Yes, phototherapy is safe and it
works best when most of the baby’s skin is exposed
to the light. The baby will wear only a diaper and a
soft mask to protect the eyes. To keep warm, the
baby is often placed in a special bed or isolette.
• If the jaundice is due to a blood-type difference between
mother and baby, it may also be treated with medicine.
• Severe cases of jaundice that do not respond to
phototherapy or medicine are rare. In these cases,
doctors may perform an exchange transfusion.
What will happen next?
Most babies with jaundice respond well to treatment in a few
days. But every baby is different. Some babies may require more
treatment, especially if they are not eating well. The health care
team will talk with you about what is best for your baby.
Bilirubin – chemical that may
cause jaundice when it builds up
in the body
Exchange transfusion – a
procedure in which doctors
repeatedly remove small amounts
of blood from the baby and
replace it with equal amounts
of donor blood
Hyperbilirubinemia – buildup of
a chemical called bilirubin in the
body (may cause jaundice)
Jaundice – yellow color of the
skin and whites of the eyes
Phototherapy – using special
lights to help the baby get rid
of the bilirubin build-up that is
Rh/ABO incompatibility –
difference in blood type between
the mother and the baby. This
can increase the risk or severity
Ask the health care team when
you have ques