Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
What is jaundice? — “Jaundice” is the word doctors use when a baby’s skin or white part of the eye turns yellow. Jaundice is common in newborn babies and can happen within days of a baby’s birth. Babies are usually checked for jaundice for a few days after they are born.
Jaundice happens when a baby has high levels of a substance called “bilirubin” in the blood. Jaundice is a sign that a doctor needs to do a blood test to check the baby’s bilirubin level.
Babies can have high bilirubin levels for different reasons. For example, some babies who breastfeed can get jaundice because they do not get as much breast milk as they need.
It is important that a baby gets checked for jaundice to see if he or she needs treatment, because very high bilirubin levels can lead to brain damage.
How can I tell if my baby has jaundice? — You can tell if your baby has jaundice by pressing one finger on your baby’s nose or forehead. Then lift up your finger. If the skin is yellow where you pressed, your baby has jaundice.
What are the symptoms of jaundice? — Jaundice causes the skin and the white parts of the eyes to turn yellow. It often happens first in the face, but can spread to the chest, belly, and arms. It spreads to the legs last.
Sometimes, jaundice can be severe. A baby with severe jaundice can have orange-yellow skin, or yellow skin below the knee on the lower part of the leg. The “whites” of the eyes might look yellow, too. A baby with severe jaundice might also:
- Be hard to wake up
- Have a high-pitched cry
- Be unhappy and keep crying
- Keep bending his or her body or neck backward
When should I call my doctor or nurse? — Call your doctor or nurse if:
- Your baby’s jaundice is getting worse
- Your baby has symptoms of severe jaundice
Is there a test for jaundice? — Yes. A doctor can do an exam and a blood test to check for jaundice
Is there anything I can do on my own to help the jaundice get better? — Yes. To help your baby’s jaundice get better, you can make sure your baby drinks enough. If you breastfeed your baby, make sure you breastfeed often and in the right way. If you feed your baby formula, make sure your baby drinks enough formula. If you are worried that your baby is not drinking enough, talk with your doctor or nurse.
You can tell that your baby is drinking enough if:
- He or she has 6 or more wet diapers a day
- His or her bowel movements change from dark green to yellow
- He or she seems happy after feeding
Some babies do not need any other treatment for their jaundice. This is because their bilirubin levels are only a little high, and the jaundice will get better on its own. But other babies will need treatment. Babies who need treatment might have higher levels of bilirubin or they might have been born early.
How is jaundice treated? — The most common treatment for jaundice is called “light therapy.” During light therapy, a doctor puts the baby under a special blue light or wraps a “light blanket” around him or her (picture 2). Babies who get light therapy are usually naked or wear only a diaper so that the light can shine on their skin.
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
picture 2: Baby getting home light therapy for jaundice