Breastfeeding Your Baby with Jaundice

Written by Danielle Blair, IBCLC

The term jaundice gets used a lot regarding babies.  It can have many different meanings depending on the context.  From the Mayo Clinic website:

“Infant jaundice is a yellow discoloration in a newborn baby's skin and eyes. Infant jaundice occurs because the baby's blood contains an excess of bilirubin, a yellow-colored pigment of red blood cells.”


Types of Jaundice 

Baby's livers are immature, and they may not break down the bilirubin efficiently after birth.  Some amount of jaundice is considered normal for healthy babies.  We expect the bilirubin levels to rise slowly in the first several days after birth before peaking and then decreasing.  This type of jaundice is called “physiologic jaundice” and typically requires no treatment other than good feeding management.  Physiologic jaundice can be intensified in breastfed babies by mild dehydration that often occurs before milk volumes increase, which then can lead to “breastfeeding jaundice”.  In the case of physiologic or breastfeeding jaundice, the baby's skin may appear slightly yellow, often just on the face or torso.  A second peak of jaundice known as “breast milk jaundice” may occur during the second week of life.

In some cases, bilirubin levels rise very rapidly in the first 24 hours after birth.  This is not considered normal and can be a sign of infection or improper liver function, and merits immediate evaluation by a doctor.  Babies born before 38 weeks gestation, babies with bruising from delivery, babies with different blood types than their mothers (also known as ABO incompatibility), and breastfed babies are at increased risk of clinical jaundice.


Test for Jaundice

Bilirubin levels are determined by blood testing.  The levels that are considered normal depend on the baby's relative risk of jaundice and the number of hours since birth.  For example, a premature baby will be considered clinically jaundiced and require treatment at a lower bilirubin level than a full-term baby.


Treatments for Jaundice

If bilirubin levels rise very quickly after delivery, a baby may be monitored closely for good feeding, and may need treatment such as phototherapy (often called “bili lights”) or assistance with feeding to ensure that the baby takes in enough fluids to flush out the bilirubin.  A baby with very high bilirubin levels will likely have very yellow or orange colored skin from head to toe.  He may be very sleepy and feed poorly.  In rare cases, prolonged high bilirubin levels can cause brain damage.  This is why some cases of jaundice may require treatment.  

If your baby has elevated bilirubin levels, you may be encouraged to breastfeed more frequently, to use breast compressions to help baby take in more milk, or to offer some expressed breastmilk in addition to breastfeeding.  

For the baby who is not feeding well or is very sleepy, expressing milk and feeding in another way, such as by spoon, dropper, tube/syringe, or bottle, may be a temporary solution to help baby take enough milk volume to prevent severe jaundice.  Offering expressed milk in addition to breastfeeding can also help keep bilirubin levels under control in high-risk babies.

If better feeding management does not work, your baby may need phototherapy to help break down excess bilirubin in the bloodstream.  A “bili blanket” is a pad with UV lights that is wrapped around the baby, allowing baby to stay with mom and continue breastfeeding.  “Triple lights” are arranged in an isolette to allow as much of baby's body as possible to be exposed to the UV lights to bring down elevated bilirubin levels as quickly as possible.  For triple lights, a baby will typically be admitted to a NICU or special care nursery.

Sometime supplementation with formula is necessary to keep a jaundiced baby well-hydrated and to help treat the jaundice.  Formula should only be used if an insufficient volume of breastmilk is available.


Also, don't forget to check out our Boob Group podcast episode, Breastfeeding the Jaundiced Baby