What is 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.

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.


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


Kernicterus is treated with blood transfusion, known as an exchange transfusion. During an exchange transfusion, small amounts of your baby’s blood are removed through a thin plastic tube placed into blood vessels in their umbilical cord, arms or legs. The blood is then replaced with blood from a suitable matching donor (someone with the same blood group). As the new blood won’t contain bilirubin, the overall level of bilirubin in your baby’s blood will fall quickly.

Your baby will be monitored throughout the transfusion process, which can take several hours to complete.

Your baby’s blood will be tested within two hours of treatment to check if it’s been successful. If the level of bilirubin in your baby’s blood remains high, the procedure may need to be repeated.


If significant brain damage occurs before treatment, your 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.

As a parent it can be difficult to accept that your child has suffered a brain injury and thinking about the support your child will require and how you will cope as a family can be frightening and stressful.

At Ison Harrison, we have a great deal of experience working with families and children to understand why injury occurred and pursuing financial compensation to help the family implement the care, therapy, treatment and equipment required to ensure their child’s needs are fully supported and their future is secure.  Our aim is to let you have the support you need to let you get back to being your child’s parent rather than their carer.

We understand that poor care can lead to devastating, life changing injuries and you should consider legal action at an early stage. If your baby has sustained an injury resulting from delayed diagnosis or treatment of kernicterus, please call us on 0113 284 5745 or email to clinneg@isonharrison.co.uk.  A member of our team will listen to your story and answer your enquiry in a caring and sensitive matter.

Legally Speaking Podcast

Our Director & Head of Clinical Negligence, James Thompson, discusses the sensitive topic of birth injuries and how to bring a birth injury negligence claim.

Listen to our Legally Speaking podcast on birth injuries here: