Advertisement

What causes jaundice in infants?

When the baby's body tries to break down and get rid of old red blood cells (from, say, a little bruise on the head or from swallowing blood in utero), the breakdown product of those red cells is bilirubin, which causes the skin to turn yellow (jaundice).

YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

More About this Book

YOU: Raising Your Child: The Owner's Manual from First Breath to First Grade

There’s little doubt that parenting can be one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences you’ll ever have. But it can be plenty tough, too: Around the clock, you’re working to keep your...

Jaundice is yellowing of the skin. It's very common, and found in many newborns of all races. Two to three of every four newborns will get it.

Jaundice is caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the body. Bilirubin is a brownish-yellowish substance that's found in bile. Jaundice happens when a new baby's liver takes a few days to get up to speed in removing bilirubin the right way.

Most cases of jaundice in newborns go away quickly, without any harm. But some cases of jaundice can be serious. This is because bilirubin levels can get too high and hurt the baby's brain.

It is critical that parents, doctors, and nurses pay close attention to how yellow a baby's skin is during his or her first few days of life. As a precaution, all babies should be checked when they are 3 to 5 days old. A blood test may be needed to make sure that the bilirubin level is not too high.

Call the doctor if:

  • Your baby's skin seems to be getting even more yellow
  • The whites of your baby's eyes are yellow
  • Your baby is hard to wake, fussy, and/or not nursing or drinking formula well
  • Your baby's jaundice seems to be getting worse at any age
  • Your baby's jaundice lasts more than 3 weeks

Jaundice usually lasts through the first two weeks of a baby's life. Sometimes it can be a bit longer in babies who are breastfed. If the bilirubin level gets too high, doctors order phototherapy. The baby is placed under special lights that break down the excess bilirubin deposited in the skin. Traditionally, this was always done in the hospital. Today, phototherapy can frequently be done at home.

Your Developing Baby, Conception to Birth: Witnessing the Miraculous 9-Month Journey (Harvard Medical School Guides)

More About this Book

Your Developing Baby, Conception to Birth: Witnessing the Miraculous 9-Month Journey (Harvard Medical School Guides)

Awarded the iParenting Media Award for Excellent Product of 2008! Experience the miracle of life-with your own eyes Congratulations, parents-to-be! You're about to embark on a momentous journey. Even...
Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Physiologic jaundice of the newborn develops as the fetal hemoglobin is replaced by adult hemoglobin. As fetal hemoglobin breaks-down the relatively immature hepatic metabolic pathways are unable to conjugate and excrete the bilirubin at a rate consistent with the rate of fetal hemoglobin destruction. As a result bilirubin accumulates in the blood and the symptoms of hyperbilirubinemia manifest as jaundice.

Anju Bhatia, MD, of Good Samaritan Hospital, explains the risk factors that can cause jaundice in babies. Watch this video to learn about these risk factors.

Continue Learning about Children's Health

The Solution for Childhood Obesity Starts at Home
The Solution for Childhood Obesity Starts at Home
What do 8.9 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds, 17.5 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.5 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in the U.S. have in common? Asid...
Read More
When can my child shower after lower spine surgery?
Intermountain HealthcareIntermountain Healthcare
Your child may shower after 2 days. Carefully pat to dry the wound and Steri-Strip skin closures...
More Answers
Head Lice: 11 Myths Debunked
Head Lice: 11 Myths DebunkedHead Lice: 11 Myths DebunkedHead Lice: 11 Myths DebunkedHead Lice: 11 Myths Debunked
Find out what you can do to treat -- and prevent -- a lice infestation.
Start Slideshow
Is Juvenile Arthritis Connected to Antobiotic Use in Children?
Is Juvenile Arthritis Connected to Antobiotic Use in Children?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.