Neonatal Jaundice: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

When Neonatal Jaundice Is An Emergency

If your baby is experiencing neonatal jaundice (yellowing of the skin), along with any of the following symptoms, call 911 immediately:

  • High-pitched crying lasting over one hour
  • Fever (rectal temperature over 100.4 degrees F for infants younger than 3 months)
  • Limp or floppy body 
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Arched body

Neonatal jaundice or hyperbilirubinemia is a common condition in newborns. It causes skin, tongue, or eye yellowing and usually occurs during the second or third day after birth. The yellowing results from too much of a naturally occurring substance called bilirubin in their blood.

Jaundice often resolves on its own. Moderate cases may need treatment, such as phototherapy (light therapy). Advanced treatment may be necessary for babies with severe jaundice to prevent serious complications or health conditions.

This article reviews symptoms of mild, moderate, and severe neonatal jaundice, its causes, treatment, complications, diagnosis, and when to see a healthcare provider.

A newborn baby getting phototherapy (light therapy) treatment.

KarenMower / Getty Images

How Common Is Neonatal Jaundice?

Jaundice is very common in newborns. About 60% of full-term and 80% of premature babies have jaundice.

Symptoms of Neonatal Jaundice

The main symptom of neonatal jaundice is the yellowing of skin, tongue, or whites of the eyes. Mild jaundice begins on the face. If the bilirubin continues to build up, yellowing can also occur on the belly, chest, arms, or legs. 

Looking for Jaundice in Babies With Darker Skin

If your baby has darker skin, it can be challenging to see the subtle yellowing. Look at the whites of their eyes and under their tongue to check for jaundice. 

Symptoms of mild neonatal jaundice include:

  • Yellowing of the face
  • Yellowing on or under the tongue
  • Yellowing in the whites of the eyes
  • Clay-colored stools (poop)

If bilirubin levels continue to increase, symptoms become more concerning or moderate and require medical attention. Signs that indicate the jaundice is progressing include: 

  • Yellowing of the chest, abdomen (belly), arms, and legs (as bilirubin levels increase)
  • Not gaining weight or eating well
  • Decreased wet and dirty diapers
  • Listlessness or sluggishness, not easily woken up

The following symptoms may indicate severe jaundice that could lead to complications and require immediate medical attention:

  • Continuous high-pitched cry
  • Fever (rectal temperature over 100.4 degrees F for infants less than 3 months old)
  • Limp or floppy body 
  • Increased lethargy (sluggish, tired) and difficulty waking up 
  • Baby looks sick and is not responding to their surroundings or your voice
  • Arched body

Causes of Neonatal Jaundice

When the body makes new red blood cells (RBCs) and breaks down old RBCs, bilirubin is produced. It is a naturally occurring yellowish-orange substance. 

Bilirubin is filtered in the liver and wasted through bowel movements (poop). Jaundice or yellowing signifies that bilirubin is building up instead of moving out of the body. 

Hyperbilirubinemia

Hyperbilirubinemia means there is an excess of bilirubin in the blood. It occurs when the liver and digestive tract are not correctly or quickly filtering and wasting bilirubin. Hyperbilirubinemia leads to yellowing or jaundice.

The buildup of excess bilirubin can occur for the following reasons:

  • The liver is not fully developed
  • Problems with the liver or digestive system
  • Underlying health conditions
  • Too many red blood cells breaking down
  • Feeding difficulties

There are different types of neonatal jaundice, but physiological jaundice is the most common. During pregnancy, the pregnant parent processes bilirubin for the baby. When the baby is born, their immature liver has difficulty processing its own bilirubin. This type appears two or three days after delivery and often resolves on its own within a couple of weeks. 

Types of Jaundice

The following are the different types of neonatal jaundice: 

  • Physiological jaundice is the most common. The baby’s immature liver has difficulty processing bilirubin after delivery.
  • Pathological jaundice is less common, results from an underlying health condition, and can lead to serious problems. It is usually present on the day of birth. 
  • Breastfeeding jaundice occurs when a baby is having nursing difficulties or not getting enough breast milk.
  • Breast milk jaundice occurs when a substance in the breast milk causes problems with bilirubin excretion (waste).
  • Hemolytic jaundice happens when an excessive amount of RBCs are broken down and replaced. It can occur from blood-type mismatches, bleeding under the scalp, abnormal blood cell shape, or when a baby is small for gestational age (SGA).

What Medications Can Cause Neonatal Jaundice?

Research studies link the following antibiotics to jaundice or kernicterus (a complication of jaundice): 

  • Rocephin (ceftriaxone) (evidence is conflicting)
  • Rifadin, Rimactane (rifampin) (evidence is conflicting)
  • Sulfonamides, such as Bactrim, Septra (sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim)

A Tylenol (acetaminophen) overdose could also cause jaundice. Given in the proper dose, this is not a concern. However, an overdose can cause liver damage, leading to hyperbilirubinemia. 

How to Treat Neonatal Jaundice

Physiological jaundice is common and often mild. It frequently goes away in a couple of weeks as the baby’s liver develops. If bilirubin levels are too high or are rising too quickly, treatment may be necessary. 

Treatment for mild jaundice involves feeding babies often, about 10 to 12 times per day. This increases bowel movements and helps the liver get rid of excess bilirubin.

If jaundice progresses, treatment may include phototherapy. Phototherapy involves placing the baby under special lights or blankets. Depending on the severity of jaundice, this treatment may be done at home or in the hospital. Jaundice often resolves within a couple of days of phototherapy.

Phototherapy

Phototherapy is the use of a unique fluorescent light that helps a baby filter and waste bilirubin.

During phototherapy, the baby will lie under a “bili light” or on a “bili blanket” wearing only a diaper and an eye mask. This exposes their skin to as much light as possible while protecting their eyes from the light.

Rarely, when jaundice is severe, babies may need the following treatments in a hospital:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Albumin 
  • Immunoglobulin (IVIG) (in rare cases)
  • Luminal (phenobarbital) (rare)
  • Blood transfusion exchange (very rare)

Sunshine

When approved by your healthcare provider, exposing the baby to a few minutes of filtered sunlight can be helpful for neonatal jaundice. This can be in a sunny area of the house or indirect sunlight outside.

Keep in mind that an infant's skin can burn very quickly and become dehydrated; limiting exposure to a few minutes at a time is essential. 

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Neonatal Jaundice

Most of the time, newborn jaundice does not cause long-term harm. It usually goes away on its own or within a couple of weeks with treatment. However, very high bilirubin levels can lead to the following complications:

  • Kernicterus (brain or nervous system damage)
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Dental problems
  • Intellectual disabilities

Risk factors for severe jaundice include: 

  • Health conditions that cause increased red blood cells or liver problems
  • Liver conditions such as biliary atresia or hepatitis
  • Small for gestational age (SGA)
  • Severe infection 
  • Bruising or bleeding under the scalp 
  • Blood type incompatibility with mom
  • Hypoxia (low oxygen levels)

Are There Tests to Diagnose Neonatal Jaundice?

Healthcare providers screen babies for jaundice and other risk factors after delivery. They will continue to monitor their skin color and bilirubin levels after birth and at a scheduled appointment three to five days after delivery.  

Your provider will use the following tools to diagnose neonatal jaundice:

  • Transcutaneous bilirubin (TcB): TcB is a noninvasive screening test. The device is similar to a forehead thermometer. It directs light at the baby's head to check for high bilirubin levels. 
  • Total bilirubin: Providers may order bilirubin blood tests if the TcB shows high bilirubin levels or the baby has symptoms. This involves a small needle stick on the baby's heel. 
  • Other blood work: If your provider is concerned about risk factors for severe jaundice, they may order a complete blood count (CBC) or liver function tests

When to See a Healthcare Provider

All infants should see a healthcare provider within the first five days of birth to check for jaundice. It’s important to keep scheduled appointments and call your healthcare provider if your baby has the following symptoms:

  • Yellowing of the face and eyes (and your healthcare provider is unaware)
  • Yellowing worsens and moves to the chest, abdomen, arms, and legs 
  • Yellowing becomes orange
  • Jaundice lasts more than two weeks
  • Not gaining weight or eating well
  • Not easily waking up, especially if difficult to wake up for feeding
  • Not peeing or pooping enough
  • Overly fussy
  • Anything else that may concern you

 If your baby has any of the additional following symptoms, call 911:

  • High-pitched crying lasting over one hour
  • Fever (rectal temperature over 100.4 degrees F for infants less than 3 months old)
  • Limp or floppy body 
  • Not responding
  • Arched body

Summary

Neonatal jaundice is the yellowing of a baby’s skin due to excess bilirubin or hyperbilirubinemia. While there are multiple types, physiological jaundice is the most common and occurs due to normal newborn conditions. It usually appears on the second or third day after birth. 

Risk factors for severe jaundice include conditions that increase the baby’s red blood cells or cause liver or digestive tract issues. 

Jaundice often resolves on its own, but moderate cases may need treatment to prevent serious complications or health conditions. 

A Word From Verywell

Yellowing of your baby's skin, eyes, or tongue can be alarming. While jaundice is common and often resolves on its own, it's important to alert your healthcare team for new cases or if symptoms worsen. Early detection and treatment decrease the risk of rare, long-term damage.  

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does neonatal jaundice look like?

    Neonatal jaundice causes yellowing of a baby's skin, eyes, or tongue. It can move to other parts of the body or become more orange when it is not resolving.

  • What causes neonatal jaundice?

    The most common cause of neonatal jaundice is when the baby’s immature liver does not get rid of excess bilirubin. Not eating well or taking in a substance in breast milk can also cause liver and digestive tract sluggishness. Any health condition that increases red blood cells or causes problems in the baby’s liver or digestive tract puts them at risk. 

  • How is neonatal jaundice treated?

    As the baby's liver matures, neonatal jaundice often resolves on its own within a couple of weeks. For moderate cases, phototherapy is used. While rare, advanced cases may require intravenous (IV) fluids, albumin, immunoglobulin, Luminal (phenobarbital), or a blood transfusion exchange. 

13 Sources
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Additional Reading

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.