Jaundice is really common in newborn babies, and usually appears a couple of days after birth. In fact, 6 out of 10 babies will have jaundice in their first days of life.
Most of the time, there’s nothing to worry about, and it will disappear by itself, but occasionally jaundice can be a sign of something more serious, so here are the facts you need.
What is jaundice?
Jaundice describes a yellow tinge to the skin and to the whites of the eyes. It can be difficult to detect in some babies’ skin colours, but might be obvious if you look at their gums, the palms of their hands or the soles of their feet.
Babies are born with extra red blood cells, and in the process of getting rid of these, their bodies make a substance called bilirubin, which is then broken down by the liver. In the first few days of life, a baby’s liver isn’t yet working very efficiently, so the amount of bilirubin in the blood can build up, causing the skin to look a bit yellow.
As a baby grows, their liver starts working more effectively, so the jaundice fades away gradually. Frequency of feeding (2-3 hourly) can help speed up this process, but sometimes bilirubin makes babies sleepy, so you may need to wake your baby for feeds.
For some reason, breastfed babies are more likely to have jaundice for longer than formula-fed babies.
Your midwife or health visitor might feel your baby needs help breaking down the bilirubin, and would arrange for your baby to go to hospital for further screening.
In some cases this might require them to have phototherapy – a treatment which involves shining light on the baby’s skin. Don’t try and recreate this by exposing your baby to direct sunlight. It won’t work in the same way, and could lead to sunburn or overheating.
What do I need to look out for?
If your baby is less than 24 hours old and you suspect they have jaundice, seek immediate medical attention by contacting your GP or 111.
Check the colour of your baby’s wee and poo. Normal urine (wee) is colourless and not persistently darker than you would expect, and a couple of days after birth, your baby’s poo should be a yellow colour. If you think there may be a problem, talk to your midwife or health visitor straightaway. This applies at any age, and whether there is jaundice present or not.
If your baby still has jaundice at two weeks old (or three weeks old if they were born before 37 weeks), your midwife or health visitor will arrange for your baby to have a blood and urine (wee) test so more serious medical problems can be ruled out.
If at any time you think that the jaundice is getting more obvious, then don’t wait for your next midwife or health visitor appointment, seek medical attention.
- NICE guidance – how jaundice in newborns should be treated
- Yellow alert – an awareness campaign that promotes the early diagnosis and appropriate referral for liver disease in newly born infants
- NHS Guide on Childhood Health & Well-being for children aged birth – 5 years