Jaundice means that the skin, the whites of the eyes, the mucous membranes in the mouth, and some tissues in the body are yellowish.

Jaundice is caused by an increase in bilirubin, a substance that results from the breakdown of red blood cells.

a baby with jaundice

Jaundice symptoms can start as late as five to seven days after birth. The most common age a baby will develop jaundice is between 3 and 7 days old.

Babies normally are born with more red blood cells than they will need after birth. As their bodies get rid of these extra red blood cells, bilirubin is produced. When the bilirubin is deposited in tissues, it causes a yellowish color.

As your baby begins to get rid of the bilirubin, the jaundice will go away. This takes several days. Your baby's health care provider and nurses will look for signs of jaundice while your baby is in the hospital.

The treatment for jaundice is simple. Feed your baby often. This helps them get rid of the bilirubin in stools and urine.

Some babies need to spend time under special lights to help break down the bilirubin. These lights look like fluorescent bulbs or are part of a special fiberoptic blanket.

Usually, newborn jaundice is not harmful and goes away without treatment. But, very high levels of bilirubin can cause serious problems, such as brain damage.

If your baby's eyes or skin turn a yellowish color after you are home, call your baby's health care provider right away.

When to call your health care provider

Call your health care provider to make an appointment if:

  • the jaundice spreads from your baby's head to the legs or feet
  • your baby is dehydrated:
    • urinates fewer than three times in 24 hours
    • has dry lips and mouth
    • has sunken eyes
  • your baby has a fever of more than 100.4 F rectally
  • the jaundice lasts for more than 14 days
  • you can't get your baby to wake up and feed

Related resources

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education, Guide for the Care of Children: Ages Birth to 5, sixth edition, ped-ah-91554
First Published: 02/01/2010
Last Reviewed: 11/16/2022