Hyperbilirubinemia and jaundice

Also known as: jaundice in newborns, physiological jaundice, too much bilirubin in the blood, yellowing of the skin

What are hyperbilirubinemia and jaundice of the newborn?

Bilirubin is a yellow compound that forms when red blood cells are broken down. In older children and adults the liver normally processes this which enables it to be removed in the stool. A newborn/premature baby breaks down their red cells faster and with a liver that's immature, cannot get rid of all the bilirubin produced. When this normally builds up, the baby's eyes and skin become yellow - this is called hyperbilirubinemia or jaundice (or physiological jaundice).

About 60% of full-term newborns & 80% of premature infants may develop jaundice in the first few days of life, mostly disappearing by 1 week. This may require regular monitoring (by measuring levels of bilirubin).

What causes hyperbilirubinemia and jaundice?

During pregnancy the bilirubin that the baby produces is removed through the mothers’ system.

After birth, causes other than physiological jaundice of the newborn include poor breastfeeding with dehydration, breastmilk jaundice, other causes of increased red cell breakdown, abnormalities of liver function and excretion, and viral or bacterial infections.

What are the signs/symptoms of hyperbilirubinemia and jaundice?

A yellow skin and eyes are the main signs that are present. With high levels of bilirubin, baby’s may have trouble feeding, seem tired, weak, and have a high-pitched cry.

What are hyperbilirubinemia and jaundice care options?

Frequently, no treatment is necessary, or treating the underlying cause.

Fluids, phototherapy (light therapy), or blood transfusions/exchange transfusions (replacing the babys’ blood with fresh blood) may be required.

Reviewed by: Jack Wolfsdorf, MD, FAAP

This page was last updated on: April 11, 2023 06:31 PM

NICU: Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Nicklaus Children's Hospital, is proud to serve as a regional, national, and international referral center, receiving critically ill newborns from throughout South Florida and Latin America.

Learn More