The Symptoms and Treatment of Infant Jaundice

Jaundice in infants is a condition that does not usually present a danger in itself. But you should be alert to its causes and symptoms in order to see your doctor.
The Symptoms and Treatment of Infant Jaundice
José Gerardo Rosciano Paganelli

Reviewed and approved by the doctor José Gerardo Rosciano Paganelli.

Last update: 30 May, 2022

Although jaundice in infants is not a disease as such, it should be considered a warning sign because it may indicate an undiagnosed condition.

Why does it occur? How to identify it?

As parents, it’s important to answer these questions. Therefore, we’d like to tell you about the related causes, its symptoms, and the therapies available to treat it.

What is jaundice?

Jaundice in infants is a condition that’s characterized by a change of color in the skin and the sclera (the whites of the eyes), which begin to look yellowish. This develops when there’s an excess of bilirubin in the bloodstream.

Bilirubin is a yellow pigment that results from the normal breakdown of red blood cells. This substance usually passes through the liver and is released into the intestine as bile.

Most of the time, jaundice is temporary and harmless and responds well to non-invasive treatments. Even so, it’s always necessary to see a physician to rule out any pathology. The main causes are listed below.

The main causes of infant jaundice

It’s normal for babies to have high bilirubin levels after birth. In fact, most newborns have a yellowish color to their skin.

According to data from an article published by University and Health Magazine, the condition develops in 80% of babies born prematurely and 60% of those born at term. However, it is not always noticeable and may disappear on its own after about two weeks.

However, it’s not always visible and can disappear on its own after two weeks.

Infant jaundice

The main cause is an immature liver that is unable to process the excess bilirubin properly. It also seems that newborns produce more bilirubin than normal because they’re renewing red blood cells more often.

Other possible causes may include:

  • A family history of jaundice
  • Not being fed with breast milk
  • Internal bleeding
  • A blood infection (septicemia)
  • Viral or bacterial infections
  • Incompatibility between the blood type of the mother and baby
  • Liver failure
  • Abnormal red blood cells

The symptoms of infant jaundice

The main sign of jaundice in infants is a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. These symptoms often become noticeable between the second and fourth day after birth. The color change may begin in the face and spread to the abdomen, legs, and soles of the feet.

When the condition is severe, it can also be accompanied by:

  • A lack of appetite
  • An abnormally low weight
  • Sharp crying
  • A tired appearance


According to an article published by the specialists of the American Academy of Pedriatics, a physician can diagnose jaundice in infants according to the appearance of the newborn.

A baby at the doctor's office.

However, to measure the level of bilirubin in the blood, other complementary tests are required. So, in addition to the physical examination, it is suggested to perform:

  • A lab test of a blood sample (complete blood count)
  • An analysis using a “transcutaneous bilirubin meter” device
  • The Coombs test
  • A reticulocyte count

You might find this article interesting: Mixed Breastfeeding: Everything You Need to Know

The treatment of infant jaundice

Jaundice in infants typically goes away on its own after two to three weeks without needing further treatment. However, when it’s moderate or severe the newborn may need to be hospitalized for a few days.

How it’s treated will depend on the level of bilirubin in the bloodstream, the age of the baby, and whether or not it was premature. An infant will need treatment if the bilirubin levels are very high or are rising rapidly.

Overall, treatment may include one of the following measures.


Jaundice in a newborn.

For this treatment, a baby is exposed to a special lamp that emits light in a bluish-green spectrum. This light helps break down the bilirubin molecules so they can be eliminated through the urine. It’s not an ultraviolet light and has a plastic protector that acts as a filter.

In addition, during treatment, the baby will wear only diapers and protective eye patches. In some cases, this is also supplemented by the use of a light-emitting pad or mattress.

Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG)

When jaundice results due to incompatibilities between the blood types of the mother and child, an intravenous transfusion of immunoglobulin is used. This procedure will decrease jaundice and the necessity for a blood transfusion.

Exchange transfusion

In rare cases where there is no response to other treatments, the infant may require a blood transfusion.

As the experts explain, this involves the repeated removal of small amounts of blood to dilute the bilirubin levels and antibodies inherited from the mother. Then, the blood is transferred back to the baby.

You might find this article interesting: 6 Common Diseases During Pregnancy

Eating habits for infant jaundice

If the jaundice is not serious, a doctor will recommend simple changes in the infant’s eating habits. Some mothers may require support if they have problems breastfeeding.

If your baby doesn’t have a sucking reflex, it’s important to consult your health care provider.

Some mothers require support because they have trouble breastfeeding. In these cases, the following tips can help reduce jaundice:

  • Breastfeed more frequently so the baby has more bowel movements.
  • Use complementary dietary sources, such as formula, when there are problems breastfeeding. This may be necessary, especially if the newborn is losing weight or is dehydrated.
  • Try using formula for a couple of days and then resume breastfeeding (only under the recommendation of your doctor).

When to see a doctor

All babies should be evaluated by a professional within the first five days of life to determine if they have jaundice. It’s essential to go to the emergency room if the yellowish color is accompanied by fever, loss of appetite, or listlessness.

Jaundice is not usually dangerous in newborn babies who don’t have other illnesses. However, if it’s a premature infant, she or he requires special attention, as complications can include acute bilirubin encephalopathy, cerebral palsy, and deafness.

  • Marco Lozano, N., Vizcaíno Díaz, C., Quiles Durá, J. L., Alós Muñoz, A., & Vargas Torcal, F. (2009). Ictericia neonatal: evaluación clínica de un bilirrubinómetro transcutáneo. Anales de Pediatria, 71(2), 157–160.
  • Fuentes Pinto, I. (2009). Ictericia. Protocolos diagnóstico-terapéuticos de Urgencias Pediátricas SEUP-AEP. Asociación Española de Pediatría, 1, 115–123.
  • Quiroz, C. D., & Puelma, J. G. (1979). Hiperbilirrubinemia neonatal. Revista Chilena de Pediatria, 50(3), 6–14.
  • La exanguinotransfusión es un procedimiento que salva vidas – Publicaciones Científicas. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2019, from
    Protocolo de Tratamiento con inmunoglobulinas intravenosas. (2013), 1–13.
    Durán, M., García, J. A., & Sánchez, A. (2015). Efectividad de la fototerapia en la hiperbilirrubinemia neonatal . Enfermería Universitaria . scielomx .
  • Galíndez-González, Angie Lizeth, Carrera-Benavides, Sara Raquel, Díaz-Jiménez, Angely Alejandra, & Martínez-Burbano, Mavir Bibiana. (2017). Factores predisponentes para ictericia neonatal en los pacientes egresados de la UCI neonatal, Hospital Infantil los Ángeles de Pasto. Universidad y Salud19(3), 352-358.

The contents of this publication are for informational purposes only. At no time can they serve to facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult with your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.