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Jaundice is the name given when babies develop a yellow tinge in their skin a few days after birth.

Over half of all healthy babies are affected by jaundice and it is particularly common in premature babies. The yellowness usually fades after a week or so but it may take longer in premature babies.

The yellow colour is caused by excess of a chemical called bilirubin. This chemical is produced when red blood cells are broken down (a process which occurs in all healthy people). Newborn babies have lots of red blood cells so they tend to have higher levels of bilirubin in their bodies. Bilirubin is usually cleared away by the liver but babies' young livers find it hard to metabolise the large amounts of bilirubin.

Jaundice is usually completely harmless but in rare cases can cause problems with the nervous systems.

An easy way of seeing if your baby has jaundice is to press on their nose or forehead and look out for a yellow tinge when you release the pressure. Babies with dark skin often have yellowish whites of their eyes, gums and soles of feet. Babies with jaundice may also have very pale stools.

If you think your baby has jaundice you should go to the doctor who will decide whether or not treatment is needed.

Treatment will probably be considered if the jaundice occured within 24 hours of birth, if the jaundice is quite extreme or if the jaundice is getting worse.

Jaundice can sometimes indicate liver problems. See your doctor straight away if jaundice develops more than seven days after birth, if jaundice remains for more than two or three weeks or if your baby's stools are chalky white.

Phototherapy treatment may be offered to break down excess bilirubin to treat the jaundice. If your baby's bilirubin levels are extremely high they may have to have an exchange transfusion where the baby's blood is gradually replaced with blood from a healthy donor.

September 2012
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