About half of all babies develop some degree of jaundice. Know how to cope and how to identify a serious case requiring immediate medical attention.

Jaundice is common with newborn babies. It can vary from a mild condition that can be treated easily to more severe conditions that require medical treatment. About half of all babies develop jaundice.

The yellow skin tone and eyes typical of a jaundiced baby are due to the presence of bilirubin. A newborn baby has a surplus of red blood cells that are broken down after birth and during this process; bilirubin is produced as a by-product. The baby’s liver excretes this but sometimes the newborn liver is unable to cope and bilirubin levels build up in the blood, giving a yellowish tinge. These levels usually peak between the third and fifth day and then drop. Physiological jaundice is the term used when the condition is considered harmless.

Haemolytic jaundice is more serious and can damage the baby’s nervous system and brain cells if left untreated. Paediatricians always watch a jaundiced baby closely to ensure that the jaundice is not a result of a blood group incompatibility with the mother.

If your baby is unwell, has poor muscle tone, is lethargic and sleeping excessively, is not feeding well or is vomiting, seek medical attention.


A jaundiced baby needs sunlight and frequent feeding, perhaps every two hours. If you are breastfeeding, taking liver cleansing herbs yourself will help cleanse your baby’s liver, as the herbal treatment will pass through the breast milk. Take dandelion root or St Mary’s thistle as a tea or tincture. Sometimes a paediatrician may advise phytotherapy, or light treatment, for your baby to decrease the levels. Light treatment produces a photochemical breakdown of bilirubin into substances that are then passed out in the urine. The baby is blindfolded, to protect the eyes, and placed under a lamp in a phytotherapy unit. Another option involves a blanket filled with fibre-optic wands that emit light when turned on. The baby is wrapped in the blanket and can be held or nursed.

A baby has a greater risk of developing jaundice if it is born premature, was exposed to medication, drugs and poor nutrition during pregnancy. The liver detoxifies the body; therefore an excess of toxins or poisons during pregnancy will compromise the health of both the maternal and foetal liver.

Drink plenty of water, hot water with fresh lemon juice, and liver-cleansing herbal teas such as dandelion and nettle, particularly in the latter stage of pregnancy, to promote liver function. It is also thought that cutting the umbilical cord immediately, rather than waiting for the blood to stop pulsating increases the risk of jaundice.

Breast milk jaundice

Sometimes hormones passing through the breastmilk can cause jaundice. Breast milk jaundice usually occurs five to ten days after the birth and can last several weeks. If your baby seems alert and happy, there is no need for concern. You may wish to consult the Nursing Mothers Association for advice. If your baby is obviously unwell, also consult your midwife, doctor or paediatrician. Any break from feeding should be seen as a last resort.

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