Infant Jaundice

What is Infant Jaundice?

Infant jaundice is characterized by a yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin. It is a common condition that affects more than 50% of newborns, especially preemies and breastfed infants. It is caused by too much bilirubin in the bloodstream and an immature liver. Newborn babies are not equipped to process the bilirubin. As it accumulates in the blood it causes telltale yellowing.

What are the Symptoms of Infant Jaundice?

Yellowing is most apparent when gentle pressure is applied to baby’s brow. After the finger is lifted, look for yellow discoloration in the area that was compressed. Visually examine the whites of the eyes as well. Check in a location that offers plenty of natural sunlight since artificial lighting can cast a yellow glow. The second and fourth day after birth is when infant jaundice usually appears. Hospitals typically check and monitor bilirubin levels before discharge. However, it should be visually monitored at home since it may not appear until after release.

Signs of severe infant jaundice or complications may include

  • Increased yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Yellowing of the limbs and abdomen
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • High-pitched cries
  • Lack of hunger
  • Infant jaundice that continues after three weeks
  • Breathing problems
  • Fever
  • Infant jaundice that appears before 24 hours after birth is a reason for concern

Infant Jaundice Causes

Hyperbilirubinemia or excess bilirubin is the primary cause of infant jaundice. The liver is responsible for filtering bilirubin from the bloodstream to the intestinal tract. However, a newborn baby’s small and immature liver cannot remove bilirubin at a similar rate it is produced, thus, causing an excess of the substance.

This normal infant condition is known as physiologic jaundice. However, other underlying health conditions may cause jaundice that appears earlier or later than physiologic jaundice.

– Sometimes there is blood group incompatibility between the mother and child and the blood mix during birth. In this case, jaundice is likely to occur.
– Crigler-Najjar syndrome. This disease is hereditary and affects the production of an enzyme that is responsible for processing bilirubin.
– An abnormality of an infant’s red blood cells which causes them to break can lead to jaundice.
– Sepsis – which is an infection in a baby’s blood. This can also include viral and other bacterial infections.
– Hemorrhage or internal bleeding can also be a possible cause of jaundice.
– A problem with the gall bladder or blockage of bile ducts which produce and allow transportation of bile juice that helps in the breakdown of fatty acids.

How is Infant Jaundice Treated?

Although less serious cases of infant jaundice do not require treatment, it can be caused by an underlying disorder or a blood incompatibility between the infant and the mother. No matter the basis, high bilirubin levels can be dangerous. Serious problems are rare, but it can cause kernicterus that can result in cerebral palsy, seizures and brain damage if not treated. Blood tests using a blood sample or special sensor are required to properly monitor bilirubin levels.

Treatment includes

  • Increased number of daily feedings
  • Supplemental formula feedings for breastfed babies
  • Light therapy in the hospital and/or at home
  • Immunoglobulin transfusion
  • Blood transfusions

Tests for serious disorders may be required if infant jaundice does not resolve itself within three weeks after birth or if severe symptoms occur.

Infant Jaundice Prevention

Adequate feeding can best prevent infant jaundice. Additionally, ensure that the baby is getting sufficient fluids. Newborns who are breastfed need at least 12 feedings each day for the first days after being birthed. For formula-fed baby’s, they require about 30 – 60 millimeters of formula after every 2 to 3 hours in the first week.

Mothers who intend to breast feed their babies and have questions or concerns should talk to a lactation consultant to ensure a proper latch is achieved. This service is often offered in various hospitals.

The mother can prevent jaundice in a baby by taking care of herself during prenatal stage. This includes getting enough sleep and taking prenatal vitamins. Fatigue can cause premature birth which is a risk factor of infant jaundice.

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Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
March 30, 2018