Can Jaundice Cause Brain Damage in Newborns?

Causes of Cerebral Palsy, Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis

Mother holding yellow-tinted infant

Many new parents think that since jaundice is quite common, it isn’t serious and will clear up by itself. While it’s true that many newborns have minimal jaundice, severe jaundice can sometimes cause brain damage and lead to cerebral palsy. You may want to watch out for several risk factors and signs that your child has jaundice. This guide will help you understand how jaundice occurs and its common symptoms as well as typical treatments if this happens to your child.

What Is Jaundice?

Many babies have a yellowish skin color and/or whites of the eyes that look yellow. This coloring is called jaundice.

Jaundice is a medical condition caused when the chemical bilirubin, a substance that’s normally found in bile, builds up in a newborn’s blood. The buildup happens faster than the baby’s liver can break it down and pass it out of their body.

A mother’s liver removes bilirubin for the fetus during pregnancy. After a baby is born, the newborn’s liver must work on its own to remove the bilirubin. Some babies have livers that aren’t developed enough to get rid of bilirubin efficiently. In these cases, too much bilirubin builds up in a newborn’s body and causes jaundice.

Can Jaundice Cause Brain Damage in Newborns?

If left untreated, severe jaundice or high levels of bilirubin in a baby’s blood can cause a type of brain damage called kernicterus. Kernicterus happens when blood levels of bilirubin get so high that the bilirubin crosses the blood-brain barrier. This damages the tissue in the brain. Kernicterus is nearly always related to severe jaundice.

Can Jaundice Cause Cerebral Palsy?

Kernicterus, the brain damage resulting from severe jaundice, can cause athetoid cerebral palsy as well as hearing loss. Other issues that arise from kernicterus include:

  • Problems with vision
  • Problems with teeth
  • Intellectual disabilities

Symptoms of Jaundice in Newborns

Typically, jaundice appears shortly after a baby’s birth. It may be easier to detect the yellowish tint when a baby has a lighter skin shade.
Jaundice symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty waking up
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty breastfeeding or suckling a bottle
  • Noticeable fussiness
  • Reduced urine production or urine that’s darkly colored
  • Yellow or orange skin coloring, particularly in the face, gums and whites of the eyes

You should see a doctor the same day if you notice these symptoms.

Often, babies with mild or moderate jaundice don’t have any symptoms besides that telltale yellow tint to their skin and eyes. You may see that change in color progress in babies with severe jaundice, moving through the chest, stomach, arms and legs.

Symptoms of severe jaundice and of kernicterus may include:

  • High-pitched crying
  • Stiffness or limpness
  • Uncoordinated or strange eye movements
  • Bulging at the soft spot on top of the baby’s head
  • Seizures
  • A body arching in a bow: the head, neck and heels bend backward, while the rest of the body angles forward

If you suspect that your baby is experiencing these symptoms of jaundice or kernicterus, you should seek emergency medical attention right away.

Causes and Risk Factors

Some factors that may cause significant jaundice include:

  • A liver that is damaged, diseased or underdeveloped
  • A bile duct blockage or obstruction
  • Increased production of bilirubin
  • Gilbert’s syndrome, a liver condition that prevents the proper filtering of bilirubin
  • Premature birth (before 37 weeks)
  • Destruction of red blood cells, which can occur when a mother’s blood type doesn’t match the baby’s blood type (Rh incompatibility)

Mild jaundice is very common in newborn babies. However, there are some factors that are known to significantly increase the risk of severe jaundice and kernicterus. These factors include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Poor appetite or difficulty with feeding
  • Lack of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, or G6PD (this enzyme helps red blood cells work properly)
  • Meningitis
  • Sepsis
  • A family history of jaundice
  • Injuries or bruising from a difficult birth
  • Other bruising


In the United States, approximately 60% of all newborns have jaundice. Prompt treatment of high bilirubin levels may prevent kernicterus in almost all cases.

Light therapy may provide an effective treatment. A baby undergoing light therapy will be undressed and placed under special lights to treat high bilirubin levels. The light doesn’t hurt the baby, and there are specialized ways of providing this treatment in a hospital or even at home. Sometimes, the baby’s intake of milk must also be increased.

If a baby has very high bilirubin levels, a doctor may do a blood exchange transfusion.

Though there have been incredible treatment advances for children with cerebral palsy, cerebral palsy that comes from kernicterus is preventable and in some cases, may be the result of medical negligence or malpractice. The Cerebral Palsy Family Lawyers at Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC have helped more than 30,000 families with cerebral palsy-related medical malpractice cases across the United States. If you have legal questions about your child’s cerebral palsy or think you have a legal case, ask our lawyers today. You may be eligible for compensation.



Reviewed by:
Trish Fletcher, MS, BSN, CRNP, NNP-BC, ALNC
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner | Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant

Tricia is a dedicated, focused, Birth Injury Legal Nurse Consultant and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner with more than 25 years of experience. Her strong clinical and critical thinking skills, paired with expertise caring for neonates in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), ensures meticulous medical records review. READ FULL BIO

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