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How to Know the Signs of Jaundice in babies

Reviewed by David Franklin, MD
How to Know the Signs of Jaundice in babies

Jaundice in babies is not uncommon.  Healthy full term babies often demonstrate a mild form of jaundice.  However, a premature or unhealthy baby may express more serious forms of jaundice.  General symptoms to look for would be yellowing of the skin and the white part of the eye (sclera).  The newborn may also express symptoms of sleepiness, not wanting to eat and possibly producing a dark urine.  Jaundice in babies is usually caused by excess bilirubin in their systems.  Bilirubin is produced from the breakdown of hemoglobin found in red blood cells by the liver.  Bilirubin is then sent to the gall bladder and eliminated by excretion into the small intestine.  About 60 percent of newborns can't process the bilirubin fast enough creating yellowing of the skin and eyes known as jaundice in babies.  There are other causes which include hemolytic anemia, hepatitis and galactosaemia.   

If your newborn is healthy, there is usually nothing to worry about.  The infant will take a little longer breaking down the bilirubin and will resolve itself within a day or two.  Sometimes light therapy is used in special cases to resolve the issue.  If your newborn is sick and producing high levels of bilirubin, your infant will need to be monitored by your healthcare provider.

If your newborn has more than just a simple case of jaundice, you will need to make a visit to your doctor.  A serious case of jaundice in babies requires a physical exam, blood tests, possible ultrasound, liver sample for testing or exploratory surgery.  


Treatment of jaundice in babies depends on the what is causing the problem and diagnosis will determine that.  Remember, if your infant is healthy chances are no treatment is required as the problem will resolve itself within a few days.  If jaundice symptoms are more serious but still due to excess bilirubin, light therapy may be used.  Light therapy helps to transform bilirubin in the skin to a less harmful molecule and then the situation corrects itself.  

If you newborn has hemolytic anemia, this may be due to some bacterial infection or other parasite.  Hemolytic anemia is when an agent breaks down your red blood cells releasing bilirubin.  Jaundice in babies with infections are administered an anti-bacterial agent or the proper medication for the infection they have.

If your newborn has galactosaemia, you need to stop breastfeeding your baby.  Breast milk contains galactose.  You will need to use a special formula that doesn't contain galactose and bottle feed your infant.

For some jaundice in babies, a biliary atresia may exist.  A minor surgery is needed to connect the liver to the gall bladder to allow bilirubin to drain from the liver.  This procedure generally works however, some newborns may require a liver transplant.

Remember, jaundice in babies carries symptoms of yellowing of the skin and sclera (white part) of the eye.  This is not uncommon as about sixty percent of newborns experience this to some extent.  Jaundice in babies is a product of excess bilirubin in their systems because the liver can't break it down fast enough.  The problem usually resolves itself in a few days.  If it doesn't resolve itself quickly, your infant may have another problem such as hemolytic anemia, hepatitis or galactosaemia.  You need to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

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