Jaundice of Prematurity: A Common Concern for Parents

jaundice of prematurity

What is Jaundice of Prematurity?

The arrival of a new baby is a time of immense joy, but for parents of premature infants, it can also be a period of worry. One common concern is jaundice of prematurity, a condition that causes a yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes due to a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream.

jaundice of prematurity

What is bilirubin?

Bilirubin is a yellowish pigment produced naturally when the body breaks down old red blood cells. Normally, the liver filters bilirubin and removes it from the body through the stool. However, premature babies’ livers are not fully developed, making it difficult for them to process bilirubin efficiently.

What are the 3 types of jaundice in newborns?

The three types of jaundice in newborns are:

Physiologic jaundice: This is the most common type of jaundice in newborns and typically occurs within the first week of life. It is caused by the immature liver’s inability to efficiently process bilirubin, resulting in a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream.

Breastfeeding jaundice: This type of jaundice can occur when a breastfed newborn is not getting enough breast milk, leading to dehydration and reduced bilirubin elimination. It typically appears within the first few days of life and may worsen if breastfeeding difficulties persist.

Breast milk jaundice: Breast milk jaundice typically develops after the first week of life and is caused by certain substances in breast milk that interfere with bilirubin elimination. It usually resolves on its own within a few weeks without causing any long-term problems.

What level of jaundice is a premature baby?

The severity of jaundice in a premature baby can vary widely depending on several factors including gestational age, birth weight, overall health, and any underlying medical conditions. Premature babies are more susceptible to jaundice due to their immature liver function, which may not be able to process bilirubin as efficiently as full-term babies.

Jaundice in premature babies is typically assessed using the same criteria as for full-term babies, which includes measuring the level of bilirubin in the blood. However, premature babies may have lower thresholds for treatment due to their increased vulnerability. It’s essential for healthcare providers to closely monitor bilirubin levels and assess the baby’s overall health to determine the appropriate level of intervention, which may include phototherapy or other treatments to lower bilirubin levels and prevent complications.

Ultimately, the level of jaundice in a premature baby can range from mild to severe, and healthcare professionals will tailor their approach based on the individual needs of the baby.

Causes of Jaundice in Premature Babies:

Premature infants are at an increased risk of jaundice due to their underdeveloped liver function. The liver is responsible for processing bilirubin, a substance produced from the breakdown of red blood cells. In premature babies, the liver may not be fully capable of processing bilirubin efficiently, leading to its accumulation in the bloodstream.

Signs and Symptoms Jaundice of Prematurity:

Yellowing of the skin and eyes: This is the most common sign and usually appears within the first 24-48 hours after birth. The yellowing typically starts from the head and progresses downwards.

Sleepiness and poor feeding: High bilirubin levels can make babies lethargic and unwilling to eat, which can further complicate their weight gain and development.

Risk Factors

Several factors increase the risk of jaundice in premature infants, including prematurity itself, blood incompatibility between the mother and baby, and infections such as sepsis.


Diagnosing jaundice in premature infants typically involves measuring the levels of bilirubin in the blood through a simple blood test. Physical examination and ultrasound imaging may also be used to assess the severity of jaundice.

Treatment of Jaundice of Prematurity:

The good news is that jaundice of prematurity is usually treatable and doesn’t pose long-term health problems. Depending on the severity, various treatment options may be employed:

Phototherapy: This involves exposing the baby to special blue light, which helps break down bilirubin in the skin.

Intravenous fluids: Keeping the baby well-hydrated helps the body eliminate bilirubin through urine and stool.

Exchange transfusion: In rare cases of severe jaundice, a small amount of the baby’s blood may be replaced with blood from a healthy donor.

jaundice of prematurity


While most cases of jaundice in premature infants resolve without complications, severe jaundice can lead to brain damage (kernicterus), hearing loss, and cerebral palsy if left untreated.

Prevention Strategies

Preventing jaundice in premature infants involves early detection and monitoring, promoting breastfeeding, and conducting blood type and Rh factor testing during pregnancy to identify potential risk factors.

Importance of Follow-up Care

Regular follow-up care is essential for monitoring bilirubin levels, assessing developmental milestones, and providing parental education and support.

Coping with Jaundice in Premature Infants

Coping with jaundice in premature infants can be challenging for parents. Seeking emotional support, educating oneself about the condition, and maintaining open communication with healthcare providers can help alleviate stress and anxiety.

Long-term Outlook

While most cases of jaundice in premature infants resolve without long-term complications, some babies may experience developmental delays. Early intervention and support can help mitigate these challenges.

Case Studies and Success Stories

Stories of premature babies overcoming jaundice serve as inspiration for parents facing similar challenges. Hearing from other parents and healthcare professionals can provide valuable insights and encouragement.

Important Information for Parents:

Jaundice of prematurity is very common, affecting about 60% of premature babies.

Most cases are mild and resolve on their own within a week or two.

Regular monitoring of bilirubin levels is crucial to determine the need for treatment.

Talk to your baby’s pediatrician if you have any concerns about jaundice or other health issues.

Jaundice of prematurity is a common concern for parents of preemies, but with early detection, prompt treatment, and supportive care, most infants recover without complications. Understanding the causes, symptoms, treatment options, and long-term outlook for jaundice in premature infants is essential for parents and caregivers.


What causes jaundice in premature babies?

Jaundice in premature babies is primarily caused by the underdevelopment of the liver, which impairs its ability to process bilirubin efficiently.

How is jaundice diagnosed in premature infants?

Jaundice in premature infants is diagnosed through a blood test to measure bilirubin levels, along with physical examination and ultrasound imaging.

What treatment options are available for jaundice of prematurity?

Treatment options include phototherapy, intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), and exchange transfusion to lower bilirubin levels.

Are there any long-term complications associated with jaundice in premature infants?

Severe jaundice can lead to brain damage, hearing loss, and cerebral palsy if left untreated.

How can parents cope with the stress of having a baby with jaundice?

Seeking emotional support, educating oneself about the condition, and maintaining open communication with healthcare providers can help parents cope with the stress of having a baby with jaundice.

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