Jaundice in babies

Jaundice in babies

Mild jaundice is common in babies but baby jaundice is not always normal. Every month a New Zealand baby is born with severe liver disease. If your baby has yellow skin or eyes and pale poo or dark (yellow or brown) wee, your baby needs a special blood test. See your doctor or midwife as soon as possible.

Key points to remember

  • jaundice means yellow colouring of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • mild jaundice is common in newborn babies – it starts on the second or third day and settles over 7 to 10 days
  • there are many causes of jaundice
  • some types of jaundice are serious
  • jaundice that appears in the first 24 hours after birth is not normal – it must be checked out
  • jaundice at any age with pale poos and dark wee should be checked by a blood test immediately
  • jaundice still there after 2 weeks of age should be checked by a doctor
  • severe jaundice can be serious – with correct early treatment long-term problems are rare

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is the medical word for yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.

Why do babies get jaundiced?

Jaundice is very common – over half of all babies have it.

At low or medium levels, jaundice does not cause problems. However, bilirubin - which is the substance causing the jaundice - can be harmful at high levels and can lead to deafness or brain damage if it is not recognised and treated quickly.

In most babies jaundice is normal and natural and settles as the baby's organs mature and adjust after birth.

The medical term for this type of jaundice in the newborn is physiological jaundice. This type of jaundice does not harm babies.

Some breastfed babies may stay jaundiced for longer than formula fed babies. This is because of a normal and natural effect of breast milk on the baby. This type of jaundice is called breast milk jaundice. It is not harmful.

There are many other reasons for jaundice.

Each year in New Zealand, a small number of babies are born with liver disease which also causes jaundice. This is not normal and needs to be seen by your doctor or midwife.

How do I know if my baby's jaundice is normal?

Jaundice is likely to be normal if your baby:

  • becomes jaundiced after the first 24 hours after birth
  • wakes up of their own accord to demand feeds
  • looks well and feeds well
  • has dirty nappies (bowel motions) that are yellow or green (not pale, white or light beige) in colour
  • has wee (urine) which is clear or straw coloured, not yellow or dark

As the bilirubin level gets higher, your baby:

  • will become more obviously yellow over the whole body
  • may be sleepy and slow to wake up for feeding
  • may feed less well

If you are worried or have questions, ask your midwife or doctor to check your baby.

How long will the jaundice last?

Normal (physiological) jaundice usually fades away after 1 or 2 weeks. Sometimes normal jaundice may last longer than this. 

When should I seek help?

Depending on which of the following applies to your baby, check the matching section below:

  • jaundice which started in the first 24 hours after birth
  • jaundice lasting more than 2 weeks
  • your baby is jaundiced and has pale poos (stools)
  • your baby is unwell or is becoming increasingly yellow

What if my baby is jaundiced in the first 24 hours after birth?

Jaundice in the first 24 hours after birth is never normal and requires urgent medical attention. Contact your midwife or doctor straight away.

What if my baby is still jaundiced at 2 weeks of age?

If your baby is still jaundiced 2 weeks after birth they need to be checked out by your doctor or midwife. Your baby will need to have a blood test and may need to see a paediatrician (a doctor specialising in babies and children).

It is important not to miss any of the rare causes of jaundice that need special treatments. Biliary atresia is one of these important conditions.

What if my baby is jaundiced and has pale poos or dark wee?

There are also 'Beware yellow' posters in Mandarin, (PDF, 1.22MB); Māori (PDF, 921KB); Samoan (PDF, 877KB) and Tongan (PDF, 821KB).

Babies need to see their family doctor and be referred to see a paediatrician urgently if they are jaundiced and have pale, white or light beige-coloured poos (bowel motions, stools). See the 'Beware yellow' poster (PDF, 259KB)

Thumbnail image of 'Beware yellow' poster

What if my baby is jaundiced and unwell?

You should call your midwife or family doctor urgently if your baby is jaundiced and:

  • looks sick
  • is jittery (trembling)
  • has an unusual cry
  • is becoming more obviously yellow over their whole body
  • is sleepy and slow to wake up for feeds
  • is feeding poorly
  • is getting dehydrated (dry) - signs include not wetting nappies

You should also talk to your midwife or doctor if your baby:

  • has not passed meconium (the first black bowel motion) by the second day
  • is at increased risk of severe jaundice 

What puts my child at risk of getting severe jaundice?

There are a number of conditions that increase the chance of your baby getting jaundiced. These include:

  • incompatibilities between the mother's and the baby's blood types (Rhesus disease, and ABO incompatibility) 
  • some inherited conditions (G6PD deficiency, hereditary spherocytosis and others)
  • prematurity (your baby is born early)
  • infection that begins before or after birth
  • many other uncommon medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis and thyroid disorders

Check the bottom of this page for brief information about Rhesus disease, ABO incompatibility and G6PD deficiency.

How is jaundice diagnosed?

If your baby's skin is yellow, and the white parts of their eyes are yellow, then your baby is jaundiced. In most newborn babies jaundice is normal and natural.

A blood test gives more information about the level of jaundice.

A blood test is done:

  • if the jaundice appears before 24 hours of age
  • if your baby is very yellow
  • if the jaundice lasts more than 2 weeks
  • if there are pale poos (stools) or dark wee (urine)
  • if there are other concerns

What treatments are available?

If your baby has normal (physiological) jaundice, no special treatment is needed.

Mild jaundice in the first week may be treated by simply making sure that your baby has enough fluid and you can do this by breastfeeding. Breastfeeding gives your baby essential food and the right amount of water. Babies do not normally need extra water. Regular feeding to boost the supply of breast milk is important.

If the bilirubin level is high, the most commonly used treatment is phototherapy (bright light therapy). It does not contain rays that would harm your baby. Phototherapy is very safe and effective and can only be done in hospital. 

Check the bottom of this page for more information about phototherapy. 

A small number of babies with severe jaundice may have liver disease. Your baby may need blood tests or admission to hospital for tests, especially if the jaundice does not go away by 2 weeks of age or your baby has pale poos or dark wee.

Are there likely to be any complications?

Complications of jaundice in babies are rare when the correct treatment is given. Severe jaundice can lead to deafness or brain damage if it is not recognised and treated quickly.

Points to remember about jaundice in the newborn are:

  • there are many causes of jaundice
  • some types of jaundice are serious
  • jaundice that appears in the first 24 hours after birth is not normal - it must be checked by a doctor
  • jaundice at any age with pale poos and dark wee should be checked by a blood test immediately
  • jaundice still there after 2 weeks of age should be checked by a doctor
  • severe jaundice can be serious – with correct early treatment long term problems are rare

Thank you to Babylink for allowing use of the phototherapy photo.
http://www.babylink.info/Edinburgh/BabyOnUnit/BabiesJaundice.aspx [Accessed 9/10/2017]

The 'Beware yellow' poster (PDF, 259KB) was developed by the Immune Deficiencies Foundation of New Zealand (IDFNZ) in conjunction with the Paediatric Gastroenterology Clinical Network Liver Workstream.  

This page last reviewed 17 February 2016.
Email us your feedback


On this page