Within a week of birth, some babies will start to show signs of yellowing skin or eyes. This is hyperbilirubinaemia – more commonly known as jaundice.

Over half of Australia’s newborns contract jaundice every year. It is even more common among babies who are born before 38 weeks’ gestation or who become ill shortly after birth.

Some babies need special treatment for jaundice – while others may need no intervention at all.

What is Jaundice?

Jaundice occurs in 60-80% of newborns, according to the University of New South Wales’ embryology website. Usually, newborn jaundice is detected when parents notice yellowing of the skin on the baby’s face, abdomen, or in the whites of the eyes.

What Causes Jaundice?

According to the Women’s Health Network website, newborn jaundice is caused by the buildup of bilirubin in the circulatory system. Bilirubin is a chemical that occurs naturally in the human body as part of the breaking down of haemoglobin in the bloodstream. Due to the immaturity of their excretory system – which the human body uses to eliminate this chemical – babies are more prone to develop unusually high amounts of the chemical. This can lead to hyperbilirubinaemia, or jaundice.

Are Some Babies More Likely to Get Jaundice than Others?

Because it takes some time for the liver to correctly process the bilirubin, all babies have a raised level of the chemical for the first several days following birth. This may not be considered a problem unless the levels get too high.

Babies who have a harder time going through the birth canal, and encounter more blood vessel breakage, may have a higher chance of becoming jaundiced. Babies born early (before 38 weeks’ gestation) or who become ill shortly after birth may also have a higher risk of becoming jaundiced.

Babies who breastfeed may have a harder time processing high levels of bilirubin due to the mother’s inability to produce much of the fluids that help flush out the chemical. However, breastfed babies can have a mild case of jaundice for up to one month, but usually do not suffer any of the lasting side effects mentioned below.

Babies who are male or who have a blood type different from their mother’s are also at a higher risk of developing jaundice.

How Can I Tell If My Baby Has Jaundice?

Because many babies are released within 48 hours, it is important for parents to know how to tell if their newborn has jaundice. Jaundice usually appears first on the skin of the head and face. It usually spreads from the face to the abdomen. In more advanced cases, even the palms of the hands and feet have a yellow tint. As a rule, the higher the bilirubin level, the more places your baby will have a yellow tint to her skin.

Generally, babies contract jaundice within the first seven days of life. The best way to tell if your baby has jaundice is to press the tip of your finger into the skin. If the skin has a yellow tint when you lift your finger, you may want to consult your doctor or midwife.

How Do You Treat Jaundice?

Often a doctor or midwife will use a blood test to determine the level of jaundice in your newborn. Once this is determined, treatments can vary from Vitamin D supplements to phototherapy. Babies who are otherwise healthy often require no treatment at all. Sometimes blood transfusion is recommended for babies with severe cases of jaundice. Most commonly, babies struggling with jaundice need to eat more regularly to help rid their bodies of the chemical.

Babies who undergo phototherapy are sometimes moved to a separate ward designed specifically for jaundice babies. Treatments involve exposing the baby to bright lights for a set period of time. The bright lights help change the bilirubin into another chemical which her body has an easier time removing. The baby’s eyes are protected from the bright lights, but they are otherwise left exposed to the lights.

Does It Have Any Lasting Effects On The Baby?

Because it is so common, parents may be tempted to disregard the seriousness of jaundice. However, it is important to take certain measures to help your little one get rid of the bilirubin that’s built up in her system.

Immediate effects include fussiness during feedings and excessive sleepiness. It’s important to encourage your baby to eat as often as possible. If left untreated, jaundice can have a lasting impact on the child’s vision, hearing, and motor skill development. It can even develop into a more serious condition called kernicterus. The overall health of the baby and her level of antenatal development play a role in the amount of bilirubin she will be able to handle.

No matter what you do, it’s important to work together with your doctor to ensure that your baby’s jaundice is kept under control.