Jaundice is a common and usually harmless condition in newborn babies.

What is Jaundice?

Jaundice is caused by the build-up of Bilirubin in the blood.  It can also be called Icterus. Bilirubin is a yellow substance that the body creates when it replaces old red blood cells. The liver helps break down Bilirubin so it can be removed from the body in the stool. Jaundice is common in newborn babies because they have a high level of red blood cells in their blood and the liver in newborn babies is not fully developed, so it is less effective at removing the Bilirubin.

Signs and symptoms

A high level of Bilirubin makes a baby’s skin and whites of the eyes look yellow. This is called jaundice. Other symptoms of newborn jaundice can include;

  • Yellowing of the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • Dark, yellow urine (a newborn baby’s urine should be colourless)
  • Pale-coloured stools (They should be yellow or orange)

Your baby should be examined for signs of jaundice within 72 hours of being born. If your baby develops signs of jaundice after this time, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible. While jaundice isn’t usually a cause for concern, it’s important to determine whether your baby may need treatment.


Most cases of jaundice in babies don’t need treatment as the symptoms normally pass within two weeks, although symptoms can last longer. Treatment is usually only recommended if tests show a baby has very high levels of Bilirubin in their blood (known as Hyperbilirubinemia) because there is a small risk the Bilirubin could pass into the brain and cause brain damage.

There are two main treatment options which can be carried out to reduce your baby’s Bilirubin levels, these are;

  • Phototherapy – a special type of light shines on the skin which alters the Bilirubin into a form that can be more easily broken down by the liver.
  • Exchange transfusion – a type of blood transfusion where small amounts of your baby’s blood are removed and replaced with blood from a matching donor.


Most babies respond well to treatment, however if a baby with Hyperbilirubinemia isn’t treated, there is a risk they could develop permanent brain damage. This is known as Kernicterus.

Kernicterus is a rare but serious complication of untreated jaundice in babies. It’s caused by excess Bilirubin damaging the brain or central nervous system. Brain damage caused by high levels of Bilirubin is also called Bilirubin Encephalopathy.  Kernicterus is treated with an exchange transfusion.

Symptoms of Kernicterus in babies include:

  • Decreased awareness of the world around them (they may not react if you clap your hands in front of their faces)
  • Their muscles become unusually floppy
  • Poor feeding
  • Seizures (fits)
  • Arching of the neck or spine

If significant brain damage occurs before treatment, the baby can develop a range of very serious and permanent problems, such as;

  • Cerebral palsy (a condition that affects a child’s movement and co-ordination)
  • Hearing loss (which can range from mild to severe)
  • Learning difficulties
  • Involuntary twitching of different parts of their body
  • Problems maintaining normal eye movements (they may have a tendency to gaze upwards or side to side rather than straight ahead)
  • Poor development of the teeth

Read our case study about Baby E who suffered from Kernicterus and developed Cerebral Palsy.

At Ison Harrison, we have a team of expert clinical negligence solicitors. If your baby has sustained an injury resulting from undiagnosed jaundice, please call us on 0113 284 5000 or email clinneg@isonharrison.co.uk.

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