What Causes Jaundice In Babies – Babies sometimes suffer from infant jaundice which appears as a yellow discoloration on the skin and eyes. This often happens when there is excess bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a type of yellow pigment that affects the red blood cells, hence the color.  One of the causes of jaundice in newborns is a result of babies that are born earlier than 38 weeks old, premature babies and babies who are breastfed. This typically occurs when the baby’s liver is not mature enough to remove the bilirubin running through the bloodstream. However, there are cases where jaundice is triggered by an underlying disease.

Although treatment is not usually necessary, there are some babies who respond positively to noninvasive therapy. Brain damage may be a lingering effect in babies with high bilirubin levels or babies with severe cases of infant jaundice that has not been treated properly [1].

What Causes Jaundice In Babies
What Causes Jaundice In Babies

Newborn babies usually have high levels of bilirubin or physiologic jaundice as it is commonly called. As mentioned earlier, bilirubin is a yellowish pigment that often appears when the red blood cells are dispersed. It is a waste product created by the liver which is usually flushed from the body through the stool. The liver is responsible for removing bilirubin in the bloodstream, and an immature liver has trouble eliminating this yellowish pigment from the blood cells [2].

So what causes jaundice in babies? Jaundice is often caused by premature birth, an infection, issues with breastfeeding or breast milk, mismatch of blood type between the mother and baby, or liver and blood problems. Usually, jaundice in newborn babies appears a few days after birth but disappears within a span of two weeks.

There is a different form of hemoglobin present in babies prior to birth. When a baby is born, the old hemoglobin is broken down raising bilirubin levels. These are then filtered in the liver before being sent to the intestine to be expelled from the body. However, if a baby has an underdeveloped liver, it will not be able to process bilirubin quickly triggering high bilirubin levels. This leads to jaundice [3].

How Breastfeeding Affects Jaundice In Babies
How Breastfeeding Affects Jaundice In Babies

What Causes Jaundice In Babies – It is also likely that what causes jaundice in babies may occur when breastfeeding, but this does not mean that you should stop breastfeeding as this condition may disappear in a few weeks. Keep in mind that breastfeeding has plenty of benefits that outweigh the risks and causes of jaundice in newborns. Treatments often require more fluids and extra feeding of breast milk. It is important to discuss this with a doctor to get a better understanding of how breast milk functions.

Jaundice in newborns that is connected to breastfeeding is also referred to as breast-milk jaundice [4]. There are multiple theories on how babies get jaundice when they are breastfed. It is possible that the milk itself contains substances that hinder a baby’s liver function causing bilirubin levels to increase.

It can also happen when the baby is not getting enough breast milk. The milk itself encourages a baby’s bowel movements which is useful when it comes to removing excess bilirubin in the body. Breastfeeding jaundice happens when your baby does not properly latch or when the milk is substituted with something else that is interfering with feeding [5].

Pathological Jaundice For Infants & Newborns
Pathological Jaundice For Infants & Newborns

Another type of jaundice that appears in infants is pathological jaundice which can be triggered due to another health problem. There are several causes of jaundice in newborns
linked to this condition including the following:


A condition where the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones.

Urinary tract infection

The infection spreads through the urinary tract.

Blockage in the gallbladder or bile ducts

The gallbladder and bile ducts create and transport bile for digesting fatty foods.

Crigler-Najjar syndrome

A genetic condition that compromises the enzyme necessary to process bilirubin.

Severe Jaundice Newborns And Infant Babies
Severe Jaundice Newborns And Infant Babies

Certain medical conditions that cause blood cells to multiply may cause newborns to have severe jaundice [6].

Among these conditions include the following:

  • Bleeding under the scalp due to difficulty during delivery
  • Abnormal shapes of blood cells
  • Infection
  • Lack of important proteins
  • Higher levels of red blood cells (common in premature babies)
  • Mismatched blood types of mother and baby

Symptoms Of Jaundice In Newborn, Infants And Babies
Symptoms Of Jaundice In Newborn, Infants And Babies

We now know what causes jaundice in newborn babies, however, it’s important to know what to look for. Signs and symptoms of jaundice in newborns appear on their second or third day after birth. The usual signs include yellowing on the skin of the face, chest, stomach and legs. It is also possible that the whites of the eyes appear yellow. Since babies are sent home a day or two post birth, have your doctor check them one to two days later to determine if jaundice is present.

It is also possible to determine if your baby has jaundice based on the physical changes of the color of the skin. For babies with higher levels of melatonin, determine if jaundice is present by pressing gently on the skin of the baby’s forehead or nose. If the skin becomes yellow once released, your baby has this condition  [7].

Other symptoms of this condition in babies include the following:

  • Difficulty in feeding
  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Dark urine and light-colored poop
  • Yellowing palms of hands and soles of feet (a sign of severe jaundice)

How To Diagnose Jaundice In A Newborn Baby
What Causes Jaundice In Babies & How To Diagnose Jaundice In A Newborn Baby

Determining the what causes jaundice in newborn babies must to be accomplished prior to treatment. A pediatrician will require a blood test to determine the condition of the blood cells first. There are also other tests that may be needed:

  • Bilirubin levels are checked. This helps the doctor determine if additional tests are required. Some other health care providers have a device called BiliCheck that can determine transcutaneous bilirubin so blood does not have to be drawn.
  • For babies who are of Mediterranean descent, doctors will check blood samples for a G6PD deficiency  [8].

Treatments For Newborn Jaundice
What Causes Jaundice In Babies – Treatments For Newborn Jaundice

Treatment for neonatal jaundice varies depending on the severity of the condition. Around five percent of babies who have jaundice are treated using phototherapy where bilirubin is transformed into a less harmful substance that can be processed by the body instead of being deposited into the brain. Phototherapy treatments are available at the hospital and at home. Most of the time, newborns are wrapped in a biliblanket which is equipped with fiber optic cables that shine light on the skin. Babies with newborn jaundice are often kept in an incubator under blue lights while their bilirubin levels are constantly monitored [9].

Secondary Treatments For Infant Jaundice
Secondary Treatments For Infant Jaundice

Hydration or feeding

Mothers are encouraged to let their babies feed more often on breast milk or formula to encourage more bowel movements. This can reduce the presence of bilirubin in the body. Babies can be fed up to 12 times in a day to ensure proper hydration and constant bowel movement. For babies that are required to stay in the hospital, they may be administered intravenous fluids while their bilirubin levels are checked.

Intravenous immunoglobulin

This treatment can be administered for certain cases of neonatal jaundice caused by maternal-fetal blood incompatibility. This may help reduce the need for transfusion.

Exchange transfusion

Babies who have severe jaundice may require a blood transfusion. In this treatment, the blood of your baby will be replaced by donated blood to reduce the amount of bilirubin. This is for special cases  [10].

Complications Of Neonatal Jaundice
Complications Of Neonatal Jaundice

If the bilirubin increases to a dangerously high level, it can lead to brain damage and trigger issues like cerebral palsy and kernicterus (difficulty hearing and learning). Although this is quite rare in babies, it can still happen especially when treatment does not begin immediately [11].

Consult Your Doctor Immediately If Your Baby Has Signs Of JaundiceConsult Your Doctor Immediately If Your Baby Has Signs Of Jaundice

If these conditions appear, have your baby checked as soon as possible:

  • The skin of your baby is becoming more yellow
  • The whites of the eyes have turned yellow
  • Jaundice lasts for more than two weeks
  • Your baby is not nursing very well, becoming too fussy or hard to wake
  • Jaundice is worsening regardless of their age

Normally, jaundice lasts for the first two weeks of a baby’s life. It may be longer for those who are breastfed. Monitoring your baby’s bilirubin levels is vital to ensure that they do not increase to a critical level. Your doctor will recommend the right treatment depending on the severity of the case [12].

Natural Home Remedies For Jaundice
Natural Home Remedies For Jaundice

Home remedies are also options to help alleviate the issue. These cannot eliminate the condition itself, but they can minimize its effects. These remedies are solely for babies old enough to consume liquids.

Tomatoes contain lycopene which is known for its ability to repair a damaged liver. Prepare a glass of fresh tomato juice with a bit of salt and pepper in it, and serve for breakfast.

Radish leaves lessen abdominal pain and discomfort in children with jaundice. Prepare a cup of juice from green radish leaves and drink it once every day. This helps boost appetite too.

Barley water is also a natural remedy. Boil a cup of barley in about three liters of water then let it simmer for 2 hours at least. Allow it to cool before giving to your baby.

Buttermilk helps remove any extra bile juice in the liver to help it remove bilirubin better.

Chamomile tea helps alleviate the symptoms associated with jaundice. A cup of it every day speeds up the recovery in your little one.

Chicory seeds, flowers, leaves can be used for jaundice in children. The juice of chicory promotes natural bile production which, in turn, can alleviate the symptoms of their condition.

Oregano relieves the symptoms of jaundice. Boil one spoon of oregano in a cup of water. Let it simmer for about 10 minutes before straining. Let your baby drink it when it is cool to treat the symptoms associated with this condition.

Lemon juice contains properties that protect liver cells. Dilute fresh lemon juice in water, or mix it with equal amounts of beetroot juice. Both have the same effects with regards to jaundice [13].

Jaundice in newborns may be common, but it can still scare parents. However, if you know what to look for and what steps to take, the problem will clear up in no time.

Moisturizing Organic Baby Lotion

What Causes Jaundice In Babies Resources:
[1]   Mayo Clinic; Infant jaundice, August 30, 2018.
[2]   WebMD; Understanding Newborn Jaundice — the Basics, What Causes Jaundice In Babies, Dan Brennan, MD, March 19, 2017.
[3]   Medical News Today; Causes and treatments of infant jaundice,  Karen Gill, MD, December 19, 2017.
[4]   NHS; Newborn jaundice, April 09, 2018.
[5]   American Pregnancy Association; Breastfeeding And Jaundice, August 2015.
[6]   Medline Plus; Newborn jaundice, Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA, February 19, 2018.
[7]   Kids Health From Nemours; Jaundice In Health Newborns, Rupal Christine Gupta, MD, January 2015.
[8]   eMedicine Health; Newborn Jaundice, David Perlstein, MD, MBA, FAAP, November 17, 2017.
[9]   Today’s Parent;  What you need to know about newborn jaundice, Raina Delisle, November 17, 2015.
[10]   Medicine Net; Jaundice in Newborns (Neonatal Jaundice), Steven Doerr, MD, John Mersch, MD, FAAP.
[11]   Patient; Neonatal Jaundice,  Dr Colin Tidy, Reviewed, Dr Anjum Gandhi, November 10, 2016.
[12]   Share Care; What causes jaundice in infants?, Anju R. Bhatia, MD.
[13]   Mom Junction; Jaundice In Children – Causes, Symptoms And Remedies, Sagari Gongala, March 17, 2017.

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