Neonatal Jaundice: what to do?

February 16, 2024

The arrival of a newborn is always accompanied by joy, but also by several concerns related to the baby’s health. One common condition is neonatal jaundice, and today we briefly discuss it to understand when to worry and how to intervene.

What happens with neonatal jaundice?

When a newborn baby has jaundice, his skin and the whites of his eyes take on a yellowish tint. This condition is caused by a high concentration of bilirubin in the blood, a yellow pigment produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin. In infants, the liver is not yet fully mature to effectively process bilirubin, which can then accumulate in the body.

In the first few days of life, some degree of jaundice, called physiological jaundice, is normal, usually peaking around the third or fourth day of life and tending to recede without special intervention within one to two weeks. However, if bilirubin levels are very high or jaundice persists, further investigations and treatment may be needed to prevent complications like diarrhea and worse.

What to do if an infant has jaundice?

As we mentioned, when faced with an infant with signs of jaundice, it is essential to consult the pediatrician for a thorough evaluation. The pediatrician may require blood tests to measure bilirubin concentration and assess the need for treatment. In the case of physiologic jaundice, simple measures such as frequent feeding, which helps the infant excrete bilirubin through the feces, are often sufficient.

If the jaundice is more pronounced, the pediatrician may recommend phototherapy, a procedure that uses light to transform bilirubin into a form that is more easily eliminated from the infant’s body. This treatment is usually performed in the hospital or, in some cases, at home, under close medical monitoring.

What to do in case of neonatal jaundice?

In case the neonatal jaundice is not physiological but related to other more serious conditions, such as blood group incompatibility between mother and child or other diseases, it is essential to follow the pediatrician’s instructions carefully. In addition to phototherapy, other interventions may need to be implemented, such as the administration of immunoglobulins or, in rare cases, blood transfusion.

Parents can help the infant by maintaining a regular breastfeeding routine and monitoring skin and eye color. It is also important to expose the infant to moderate natural light, which can help reduce bilirubin levels, obviously without directly exposing the infant to the sun’s UV rays, which can be harmful.

How long under the jaundice lamp?

The duration of phototherapy can vary depending on the infant’s age, bilirubin level, and the cause of the jaundice. Treatment, which can last from a few hours to several days, is continued until blood bilirubin levels are reduced to a threshold considered safe. During phototherapy, the infant is typically placed under a special lamp or wrapped in a bright blanket, wearing eye protection to prevent vision damage.

Constant monitoring and recalibration of treatment are essential, as the response to phototherapy can vary greatly from one infant to another. It is important to strictly follow medical instructions and keep all scheduled checkups to ensure the child’s well-being.

What happens if infants are not treated for jaundice?

If jaundice is left untreated and bilirubin levels remain elevated for a prolonged period, there is a risk of neurological complications, a condition known as kernitterosis. This can lead to permanent damage to the infant’s brain, possibly affecting motor, cognitive, and auditory development.

Therefore, it is crucial that parents do not underestimate jaundice and that they strive for timely medical intervention. Fortunately, with proper care and treatment, the risks can be minimized, allowing the infant to grow up healthy and without long-term effects.

How to wake up an infant with jaundice?

Infants with jaundice may appear more sleepy than normal, and this can make it more difficult to keep them awake during breastfeeding. However, the infant needs to be fed regularly to facilitate bilirubin elimination. Gentle techniques can be used to wake him up, such as changing his position, giving him a small bath with warm water, gently massaging his body, or changing his diaper before feeding.

Remember, the pediatrician is always the go-to person for any health condition of your child.

We are with you.

We at Parentalife are here to support you on this journey, providing the information and advice you need to take care of your baby. Remember that each newborn is unique, and as such the care they need. Do not hesitate to turn to the professionals for personalized and caring guidance.


Ansong-Assoku B, Shah SD, Adnan M, Ankola PA. Neonatal Jaundice. 2023 Feb 20. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan–. PMID: 30422525.

About the Author

Severino Cirillo

Health, Wellness and Education Expert. With a degree in Community Health, he is the CEO of Informed Parent and is responsible for validating the blog's scientific information and coordinating the editorial team of experts, consisting of gynecologists, midwives, psychotherapists, and others in pregnancy, perinatal, and parenting wellness and health.