Jaundice in Newborns (Hyperbilirubinemia)
Jaundice makes a baby’s skin and whites of the eyes look yellow. It happens because babies’
livers are not yet able to get rid of extra bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin (bil-ee-ROO-bin) is
made when the body breaks down old red blood cells. This waste leaves the body through urine
and stool. Jaundice in babies is common. About 2 out of 3 babies have jaundice within 2 to 7
days of life.
Too much bilirubin, if left untreated, can cause brain damage and lead to these problems:
ξ Hearing loss
ξ Nerve and muscle problems
ξ Intellectual disabilities
ξ Behavioral problems
How do I know if my baby has jaundice?
You may notice jaundice starting in your baby’s face. It may spread downward, towards your
baby’s feet, as the bilirubin level gets higher.
Common signs of jaundice to watch for in your baby:
ξ Not eating well
How is my baby checked for jaundice?
Skin color, alone, is not enough to tell if your baby has jaundice. Blood tests measure your
baby’s bilirubin level.
How is my baby treated for jaundice?
Sometimes babies with jaundice are treated with a special type of fluorescent light. This is called
phototherapy. The skin absorbs the light, and changes the bilirubin so that your baby’s body
can get rid of it more easily in stool and urine. It is important to expose as much of your baby’s
skin as possible during phototherapy, except the eyes and genitals. Treatment is usually started
in the hospital, with some babies needing to continue phototherapy at home. There is no set
bilirubin level for treatment or discharge from the hospital, as this depends on the age and other
characteristics of the individual infant. Your health care provider will let you know what your
baby’s bilirubin levels are and the best treatment plan.
A BiliBlanket® is another type of phototherapy that uses a fiber optic wrap. These wraps are
used for babies with mild jaundice because they reduce your baby’s bilirubin level more slowly
than standard phototherapy.
Sometimes standard phototherapy and the Bili Blanket® are both used.
How is my baby protected during phototherapy?
With safety precautions, the fluorescent lights used in phototherapy are not harmful. Light-
blocking shields are put over your baby’s eyes while the lights are on. They are taken off when
the phototherapy lights are off. Babies are used to being in the dark after months in the womb, so
the shields should not bother your baby or slow development.
Your baby must wear a diaper while receiving phototherapy. Phototherapy may cause loose,
watery stools, as the bilirubin leaves the body. As bilirubin levels decrease, your baby may get a
pain-less, bluish-red skin rash (bilirash). It will go away after the therapy is complete. Frequent
skin care is important, but do not use lotions, creams, balms, or ointments on uncovered skin.
These products react with the phototherapy lights and cause burns.
What should I feed my baby with jaundice?
Feeding your baby frequently will provide the sustenance needed to get rid of the extra bilirubin
through stool. Whether breast-feeding or bottle-feeding, you may be able to help decrease
jaundice by feeding your baby about 8 to 12 times a day, or every 2-3 hours. A hydrated baby
will have 4-6 wet diapers and 3-4 stools a day.
Some breastfeeding mothers think they should stop breastfeeding once their babies become
jaundiced. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages mothers to keep breast-feeding and
focus on increasing the frequency of feedings. Lactation consultants are available, if you need
help with breastfeeding.
What should I expect after discharge from the hospital?
Your baby will be sent home when he or she has returned to a safe bilirubin level, as decided by
your treatment team. It is important to keep all your baby’s appointments with health care
providers. Your baby may need blood tests after discharge. In some cases, jaundice will come
back once phototherapy is stopped. Often this corrects itself without any more treatment.
Things to remember:
ξ Special lights and controlled surroundings are always needed to treat jaundice safely.
ξ Placing your baby under fluorescent lights in your home, near a window in the sunlight,
or outside in the sun will NOT lower the amount of bilirubin. These are all dangerous, as
your baby’s skin may get burned or become too cold.
ξ Water or dextrose water should not be used to supplement breast milk or formula feeds.
This type of hydration can cause other problems and doesn’t work as well at getting rid of
Who do I call with questions?
Your baby’s primary doctor or nurse practitioner can answer any questions.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright ©10/2015. University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#7434.