What is Neonatal Jaundice?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2018
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Neonatal jaundice is a very common condition that may affect up to 50% of newborn babies who are full term, and over 70% of those who are born pre-term. It is very often a benign circumstance, which causes yellowing of the skin and eyes, as the baby breaks down excess amounts of bilirubin. In rare circumstances, neonatal jaundice is an indication of much more serious medical conditions, and for this reason, doctors keep a fairly close eye on children who develop it, and may elect to treat it if it doesn’t appear to be resolving, or they might order additional tests to rule out complications.

The average baby who gets neonatal jaundice is simply responding to the presence of too many red blood cells, which have to be broken down. These are made into bilirubin, and bilirubin can then carry a yellow or peach color to the skin and the “whites” of the eyes. Jaundice may spread all over the body and many cases of it appear a few days after a baby is born, and last for a couple more days or a week.


Sometimes, babies don’t develop neonatal jaundice in the first few days, but might show the classic yellowing a week or two weeks after being born. This condition is sometimes called breastmilk jaundice and in the past doctors often encouraged mothers to switch to formula feeding their infants. This is not thought necessary, though breastfeeding may increase the time a baby still shows jaundice symptoms. Usually, moms can still breastfeed, but the condition may take as much as a month or two to fully resolve.

While these normal cases of neonatal jaundice are most expected, there can be circumstances under which jaundice develops and it indicates serious problems. This unresolving condition in a newborn could suggest a basic incompatibility between mother and infant blood type, which requires more significant treatment. Any form of liver failure might also cause ongoing jaundice, and some severe infections may result in it too.

Given persistent neonatal jaundice, doctors may elect to treat the condition, and this is most often accomplished by using fluorescent light treatment. Most hospitals now use what is called a bili-blanket, which snuggly wraps around a newborn and might be worn for a couple of days, minus any need to change or feed the baby. Treatment isn’t always necessary and might only be indicated if the condition doesn’t seem to be resolving.

Other interventions are needed when more serious causes of jaundice are suspected, such as poor liver function or infection. Doctors might perform blood tests or ultrasounds or x-rays of the organs to see if they are working properly. With certain forms of blood incompatibility like ABO, the bili-blanket may be the only necessary treatment measure. Bilirubin lights might be adequate for treating RH incompatibility that is mild but more serious forms will require greater intervention.



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