Jaundice is a condition in which the skin has a yellowish color; this happens when an excess amount of a chemical called bilirubin is in the blood. Bilirubin is created from the normal breakdown process of red blood cells. The liver helps process bilirubin so that it can exit the body through the urine and stool.
Most newborns have some jaundice, often called “physiological” or “normal” jaundice, in the first week or so after birth. Just after birth, there is often extra bilirubin from the breakdown of red blood cells, and the baby’s liver is still developing, so this can lead to extra bilirubin in the blood for a short period of time.
The best way to view your baby’s skin is in good light, such as natural sunlight or bright fluorescent lights. Jaundice usually appears first in the face. As the amount of bilirubin in the blood increases, bilirubin can be seen in lower parts of the body such as the chest, then abdomen, then legs. The whites of the eyes may also appear yellow.
Many babies have jaundice, and most do not have problems or need treatment. If the level of bilirubin gets very high, it can possibly cause damage to the hearing and brain.
You should call your pediatrician if (1) your baby’s skin is getting more yellow; (2) your baby’s abdomen, arms, or legs are yellow; (3) the whites of your baby’s eyes are yellow; (4) your baby has jaundice and is hard to wake, fussy, or not nursing or taking formula well; or (5) your baby has had jaundice for more than 3 weeks.