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Understanding Newborn Jaundice -- the Basics

What Is Newborn Jaundice?

Many newborn babies develop jaundice, a condition in which the skin and whites of the eyes are yellowish in color, within a few days after birth. In fact, about half of all newborns develop mild jaundice in the first few days. In premature babies, jaundice may start early and last longer than in full-term babies.

If bilirubin levels become extremely high, complications such as brain damage (kernicterus), cerebral palsy, and deafness can occur.

What Causes Newborn Jaundice?

Jaundice typically occurs because newborns normally produce increased levels of bilirubin which is referred to as "physiologic jaundice." Bilirubin, which is yellowish in color, is produced when red blood cells are broken down. Bilirubin is removed from the bloodstream by the liver. In newborns, the body may produce more bilirubin than the liver can process.

Physiologic jaundice usually appears within a few days after birth and resolves within two weeks. Other types of newborn jaundice can be due to prematurity, problems related to breastfeeding, infection, blood type mismatch between mom and baby as well as other blood or liver problems.

Since many mothers and babies leave the hospital soon after delivery, jaundice may not appear until babies are at home. A newborn check is typically scheduled with your pediatrician within the first few days of going home from the nursery to check for jaundice.

It is important to contact your doctor if you notice signs of jaundice in your baby. If you suspect jaundice you will likely need to see your doctor that same day. While jaundice is usually very treatable, in the most extreme cases it can cause brain damage.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Daniel Brennan, MD on March 11, 2015

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