Jaundice, also known as icterus, is common in newborns. It causes the whites of the eyes and the skin to turn yellow. This is due to an accumulation of an orange pigment called bilirubin in the blood.
In full-term babies, jaundice generally starts 2 to 3 days after birth, peaks at 3 to 5 days, and is gone by the end of the first week. In premature babies, it can last several weeks.
Bilirubin is partially eliminated in the baby’s stools. This means jaundice is worse in babies who don’t drink enough and whose intestines are not very active.
Some breast-fed babies develop a type of jaundice that lasts up to 2 months. If your baby is growing well, gaining weight, and pees and poops normally (see Stools), this form of jaundice is not serious and requires no treatment. Breast-feeding can continue normally.
The best way to prevent jaundice is to make sure your newborn drinks enough milk (see Is your baby drinking enough milk?).
What to do?
If your baby looks yellow, is drowsy, or isn’t feeding well, consult a doctor, a nurse at your CLSC, or the hospital or birthing centre where you gave birth.
No treatment is necessary for most cases of jaundice. There is no benefit to exposing your baby to daylight in front of a window.
It isn’t easy to tell how yellow a newborn is. Check her skin and the whites of her eyes. If your baby looks yellow, is drowsy, or isn’t feeding well, consult your doctor, a CLSC nurse, or the hospital or birthing centre where you gave birth. They will measure your baby’s jaundice with a blood test or a device that evaluates skin colour. In some cases, treatment will be necessary.