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Understanding Jaundice in Newborn Babies

father holding newborn baby



Jaundice is a condition that all new parents should be aware of - it appears in about half of all full term babies and about three quarters of preterm babies.

Here's what you need to know:

Newborn babies have extra red blood cells. As those cells break down, a yellow substance called bilirubin is released. Bilirubin in a baby's blood causes the skin and the whites of the eyes to take on a yellowish tinge called jaundice.

In most infants, jaundice is mild. It appears during the first three to five days and lasts only a few days. Typically, the only treatment needed is frequent breastfeeding. Your baby may be a little sleepier and need to be woken on a regular basis - every three hours - for feeding. The extra milk will help get rid of the bilirubin.

Feed your baby as often and for as long as he or she wants. Do not give water by bottle; bilirubin is better eliminated through stools than urine. Water will only fill up the tummy and decrease breastfeeding, which will, in turn, decrease the number of stools.

In rare cases, jaundice is severe and - left untreated -  can lead to brain damage and deafness. With higher levels of jaundice, your baby still needs lots of breastfeeding. In some cases, babies are placed under special lights to get rid of bilirubin.

Call your health care provider if:

  • Your baby seems sleepy and refuses the breast or bottle.
  • You notice your newborn is jaundiced, especially on arms and legs.

Resources & Links:
Jaundice in Newborns

Last Updated: August 12, 2013