Jaundice in newborns

Jaundice in newborns (also called hyperbilirubinemia) is a condition in which the skin and the whites of a baby's eyes appear yellow because of a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow-brown substance produced by the breakdown of red blood cells.

During pregnancy, the mother's liver gets rid of fetal bilirubin. After birth, babies must eliminate bilirubin on their own. However, many newborns cannot get rid of bilirubin as fast as they make it. Bilirubin then builds up in the baby's body, causing jaundice.

Although jaundice should be monitored, it usually does not require medical treatment. Phototherapy, in which a baby is placed under special lights or fiber-optic blankets, may be used if bilirubin levels reach a high enough level. On rare occasions, blood transfusions are needed.

In rare cases, jaundice in a newborn may be a sign of another condition, such as infection, a digestive system problem, or blood-type incompatibility with the mother.

Last Updated: May 27, 2008

Author: Debby Golonka, MPH

Medical Review: Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics & Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics

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