What is Jaundice?

What is Jaundice?

Jaundice refers to a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes, usually related to liver problems. It is, however, a very common and treatable condition found in newborn babies, and is usually no cause for alarm.

Infant jaundice, as it is called, happens when your baby’s liver is not quite adept at keeping the bloodstream free of yellow pigment. This red blood cell pigment is called bilirubin, and can build up in your baby’s bloodstream (hence the discoloration) if your baby’s liver doesn't filter it out.

Most babies born with jaundice are able to resolve the issue on their own or with little medical intervention. If your baby receives this diagnosis, you’re far from alone—and everything will turn out fine. It’s just that some babies and their livers just need a little extra time to mature and function at full capacity to filter out the bilirubin.


As mentioned above, symptoms include a yellow tint or coloring in your baby’s skin and eyes. Jaundice tends to be more common in babies born before 38 weeks gestation, as their liver isn’t as mature. Jaundice symptoms start to show up in babies between the second and fourth day after birth. If you and your baby are still in the hospital at this time, your doctors will note it and keep an eye on it to see if the jaundice gets better or worse.

Sometimes the yellow discoloration isn’t easy to see in certain lighting, which is why some babies will receive a blood test to see how high your baby’s bilirubin levels are. If they are too high, your baby may need to undergo some light treatments in the hospital before discharge.

Why bilirubin levels matter

In some cases, high bilirubin levels or jaundice can point to a serious underlying health condition, which is why doctors keep a close eye on this symptom. If severe jaundice is left untreated or bilirubin levels remain high for too long, it can be harmful to babies, and, in the extreme case, can result in brain damage.

However, each check given in the hospital and by your child’s pediatrician in the weeks following birth assesses for jaundice, so you don’t need to worry about it going untreated if it is a problem.


In general, jaundice babies just need a little extra time for their liver to mature. Some may also need light therapy or phototherapy--a safe and non-invasive treatment that helps break down the bilirubin so it can be filtered out through baby’s stool and urine.

When to call your doctor

If you were sent home and told to keep an eye on your baby’s jaundice, here are some things to look for and call in for if you notice these symptoms:
  • Whites of baby’s eyes remain yellow even after 4-5 days of treatment
  • Baby’s skin remains or increases in yellow color
  • Baby seems lethargic or difficult to wake up
  • Baby is feeding poorly and not gaining weight
  • Jaundice discoloration lasts more than 3 weeks
When it comes to things like this, mothers usually know best, but if you’re doubtful, don’t hesitate to call the pediatrician. For me, both of my babies had jaundice (despite being born well past their due dates), and it took about a week to resolve on its own. I gave them plenty of natural sunlight and kept an eye on it, but it didn’t end up being a problem, which is the common outcome.

In the end, jaundice is just another one of those things you have no idea about until you become a parent, and it’s not a big deal as long as you stay on top of it and keep in touch with your child’s doctor. Easy peasy!

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