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Neonatal jaundice and phototherapy

The aim and objective of this guideline is the early detection and treatment of newborn or physiological jaundice. 

Jaundice is one of the most common conditions needing medical attention in newborn babies. Jaundice refers to yellow colouration of the skin and the sclerae and is caused by a raised level of bilirubin in the circulation, a condition known as hyperbilirubinaemia ( Rationale 1). 

Approximately 60 per cent of term and 80 per cent of preterm babies develop jaundice in the first week of life, and about 10 per cent of breastfed babies are still jaundiced at one month of age. In most babies, early jaundice is harmless. However, a few babies will develop very high levels of bilirubin, which can be harmful if not treated ( Rational 2). Clinical recognition and assessment of jaundice can be difficult, particularly in babies with dark skin tones. 

This guidance is based on National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence ( NICE 2010) recommendations on neonatal jaundice.


Conventional phototherapy: Phototherapy given using a single light source (not fibre optic) that is positioned above the baby.

Direct antiglobulin test (DAT): Also known as the direct Coombs' test; this test is used to detect antibodies or complement proteins that are bound to the surface of red blood cells.

Fibre optic phototherapy: Phototherapy given using a single light source that comprises a light generator, a fibre optic cable through which the light is carried and a flexible light pad, on which the baby is placed or that is wrapped around the baby.

Multiple phototherapy: Phototherapy that is given using more than one light source simultaneously; for example, two or more conventional units, or a combination of conventional and fibre optic units.

Preterm: Less than 37 weeks completed gestational age.

Prolonged jaundice: Jaundice lasting more than 14 days in term babies and more than 21 days in preterm babies.

Significant hyperbilirubinaemia: An elevation of the serum bilirubin to a level requiring treatment.

Term: 37 weeks or more gestational age.

Visible jaundice: Jaundice detected by visual inspection.

Management of newborn jaundice

In all babies: 

  • examine the baby for jaundice at every opportunity, especially in the first 72 hours ( Rationale 3).

When looking for jaundice (visual inspection): 

  • check the naked baby in bright and preferably natural light. Examination of the sclerae, gums and blanched skin is useful across all skin tones.  
  • additional signs and symptoms include lethargy, poor feeding, darkened urine. 

Factors associated with an increased likelihood of developing significant hyperbilirubinaemia soon after birth:

  • visible jaundice within the first 24 hours of life
  • blood group incompatibility
  • previous sibling with neonatal jaundice requiring phototherapy
  • cephalhaematoma or significant bruising
  • weight loss greater than 10 per cent of birthweight; may be associated with ineffective breast-feeding
  • gestational age under 38 weeks
  • mother’s intention to breastfeed exclusively
  • family history of red cell enzyme defects
  • infant of a diabetic mother
  • clinical signs of sepsis

Additional care

Ensure babies with factors associated with an increased likelihood of developing significant hyperbilirubinaemia receive an additional visual inspection by a healthcare professional during the first 48 hours of life ( NICE 2010).

Key priorities for management

Measuring bilirubin in all babies with jaundice

Do not rely on visual inspection alone to estimate the bilirubin level in a baby with jaundice. Always use serum bilirubin measurement to determine the bilirubin level.

To measure bilirubin in babies with jaundice, send 0.3ml of capillary, venous or arterial blood in an orange bottle to biochemistry and request for unconjugated, conjugated and total serum bilirubin levels. 

Plot the total serum bilirubin level on the treatment threshold graph ( Appendix 1) ( Rationale 4). Ensure that the total serum bilirubin level is charted appropriately against the age, with reference to the action line for the term neonate, the neonate less than 37 completed weeks, under 2.5kg and the sick neonate ( Rationale 5). Once the total bilirubin is plotted on the chart, consult with medical staff to discuss the bilirubin thresholds for managing hyperbilirubinaemia. Use the threshold table ( Appendix 2) and investigation pathway to determine management ( NICE, 2010).

Information for parents

Offer parents or carers information about neonatal jaundice that is tailored to their needs and expressed concerns. NICE ( NICE 2010) provide information booklets to help parents understand the care and treatment for jaundice in newborn babies.

This information includes:

  • Factors that influence the development of significant hyperbilirubinaemia
  • Encouragement of mothers to breastfeed frequently and to wake the baby for feeds if necessary
  • Information on phototherapy including: 
    • why phototherapy may be needed to treat significant hyperbilirubinaemia
    • anticipated duration of treatment
    • the possible adverse affects of phototherapy 
    • the need for eye protection and routine eye care
    • reassurance that short breaks for feeding, nappy changing and cuddles will be encouraged
    • what might happen if phototherapy fails
    • rebound jaundice
    • impact on breastfeeding and how to minimise this.

Treatment of jaundice

  • Treatment of the cause (eg infection)
  • Adequate hydration

    • If breastfed, the baby should be put to the breast between 8-12 times per day for several days.
    • If supplementation of breastfeeding is required, this should be expressed breast milk or formula not water ( NICE, 2010).
    • If oral intake is inadequate give intravenous fluids. There is no evidence to support the administration of additional fluids to jaundiced babies ( NICE, 2010).

Considering the use of phototherapy

Exposure of jaundiced skin to light photo-isomerises the bilirubin molecule into forms that can be excreted directly into the bile, without having to be conjugated ( Rationale 6). Phototherapy should only be used as outlined in the phototherapy pathway ( Appendix 3). 

The effectiveness of the phototherapy increases with:

  • blue light
  • intensity of the light
  • the greater amount of skin exposed
  • the closer the lights to the baby (limited by risk of overheating the baby).

Before starting phototherapy

  • Use serum bilirubin measurement and the treatment thresholds in the threshold table and treatment threshold graphs when considering the use of phototherapy.
  • In babies with a gestational age of 38 weeks or more whose bilirubin is in the 'repeat bilirubin measurement' category in the threshold table, repeat the bilirubin measurement in 612 hours.
  • In babies with a gestational age of 38 weeks or more whose bilirubin is in the 'consider phototherapy' category in the threshold table, repeat the bilirubin measurement in 6 hours regardless of whether or not phototherapy has subsequently been started.
  • Do not use phototherapy in babies whose bilirubin does not exceed the phototherapy threshold levels in the threshold table and treatment threshold graphs.
  • Commencement of phototherapy is not an indication for transfer of the baby to NICU.
  • The major drawback with phototherapy is that its effect is slow and is rarely effective with severe haemolytic causes of jaundice ( NICE, 2010).

Administering phototherapy

Phototherapy equipment

  • In the Trust, phototherapy units are generally incorporated into the overhead heater in the babytherms. Additional phototherapy units can be obtained from hospital central supplies and requested via CARPS.
  • If using an additional phototherapy unit, place the overhead phototherapy light 40-50cm from the neonate’s skin ( Shaw 2003)( Rationale 7).
  • Ensure all phototherapy equipment is maintained and used according to the manufacturers' guidelines.

General care of the baby during phototherapy

  • Perform a clinical handwash as recommended by standard ( Rationale 8).
  • Undress the baby and open their nappy to ensure treatment is applied to the maximum area of skin.
  • Give the baby eye protection ( Rationale 9). Remove eye shields and check eyes regularly 
  • Do not apply any cream or oil to the exposed area of skin ( Rationale 10).
  • Monitor the baby’s temperature three hourly and ensure the baby is kept in a thermoneutral environment (eg temperature per axilla 36.8 - 37.2oC).
  • Monitor hydration by daily weighing of the baby and assessing wet nappies.
  • Place the baby in a supine position unless other clinical conditions prevent this. Change the position of the baby after nursing cares ( Rationale 11).
  • Support parents and carers and encourage them to interact with the baby.
  • Observe for potential signs of bilirubin encephalopathy (eg lethargy, poor feeding, hypotonia, arching of the head and neck, and seizures).
  • Document time of commencement and completion of phototherapy in the neonate’s health care records and on the phototherapy chart ( Appendix 1) ( Rationale 12).

Potential complications of phototherapy

  • diarrhoea
  • skin rash
  • 'bronzing' of baby’s skin
  • parental anxiety/separation
  • overheating
  • water loss
  • retinal damage

Ceasing phototherapy

  • See phototherapy pathway.
  • When serum bilirubin is 50 micromol/litre below threshold – stop phototherapy.
  • Check serum bilirubin for rebound 12–18 hours post ceasing phototherapy.

Exchange transfusion

Exchange transfusion should be considered if intensive photothrapy fails to control a rapidly rising serum bilirubin in the first 24–48 hours of life or if it does not lead to a reduction of serum bilirubin of >17-34 micromol/litre every 4–6 hours after the first 48–72 hours of life.
  • See exchange transfusion pathway ( Appendix 4).
  • Transfer baby to NICU.
  • Refer to GOSH clinical practice exchange transfusion guidance.

Further issues on treatment and management

Management of hyperbilirubinaemia

When making decisions about the management of hyperbilirubinaemia:

  • do not use the albumin/bilirubin ratio
  • do not subtract conjugated bilirubin from total serum bilirubin.

Other therapies

Do not use any of the following to treat hyperbilirubinaemia ( NICE 2010):

  • sunlight
  • agar
  • albumin
  • barbiturates
  • charcoal
  • cholestyramine
  • clofibrate
  • D-penicillamine
  • glycerin
  • manna
  • metalloporphyrins
  • riboflavin
  • traditional Chinese medicine
  • acupuncture
  • homeopathy

Factors that influence the risk of kernicterus

Identify babies with hyperbilirubinaemia as being at increased risk of developing kernicterus if they have any of the following:

  • a serum bilirubin level greater than 340 micromol/litre in term babies
  • a rapidly rising bilirubin level of greater than 8.5 micromol/litre per hour
  • clinical features of acute bilirubin encephalopathy.

Care for babies with prolonged jaundice

In preterm and term babies with prolonged jaundice:

  • look for pale chalky stools and/or dark urine that stains the nappy
  • measure the conjugated bilirubin
  • carry out a full blood count, blood group determination, DAT and urine culture
  • ensure that routine metabolic screening has been performed.
  • follow expert advice about care for babies with a conjugated bilirubin level greater than 25 micromol/litre


Rationale 1: High bilirubin levels result from a high haemoglobin level and the short lifespan of the neonatal red cell, ie 40 days in the preterm baby, 60–70 days in the term baby ( Dent 2000), 120 days in the adult ( Juretschke 2005).

Rationale 2: If bilirubin levels rise rapidly above a safe level, and are left untreated, damage to the brain can result. This is known as kernicterus ( Juretschke 2005).

Rationale 3: To determine presence of visual jaundice.

Rationale 4: To determine the level of jaundice.

Rationale 5: Some babies are more likely to develop significant hyperbilirubinaemia. Action lines for the initiation of treatment commence at a lower level for the more premature and newborn infant, increasing for the first six days of life before it levels off.

Rationale 6: Light from the phototherapy lamp isomerizes the unconjugated bilirubin passing through the skin into a non-toxic form, which can readily be excreted in stool and urine ( Metherall 2003).

Rationale 7: To optimise the effectiveness of the treatment without overheating the neonate.

Rationale 8: To minimise the risk of cross infection.

Rationale 9: There is the potential for photochemical damage to eyes. 

Rationale 10: They can cause skin burns during therapy.

Rationale 11: To expose maximum skin area in order to reduce serum bilirubin.

Rationale 12: To maintain an accurate record of treatment.



Neonatal jaundice (2010) www.nice.org.uk/guidance/CG98

Shaw NM (2003) Assessment and management of hematologic dysfunction Comparative Neonatal Nursing: a physiologic perspective (3rd edition) in: WB Saunders. Philadelphia, Philadelphia 

Juretschke LJ (2005) Kernicterus: still a concern. Neonatal Netw 24 (2): 7-19. 

Metherall J (2003) Phototherapy for neonatal hyperbilirubinaemia: delivering an adequate dose. Journal of Neonatal Nursing 9(6): 182-186. 

Document control information

Lead author(s) Annette Rathwell, Neonatal Nurse Advisor

Additional authors Quen Mok, Consultant NICU/PICU

Document owner  Annette Rathwell, Neonatal Nurse Advisor 

Approved by  Clinical Practice Committee

First introduced:     09/11/2004
Date approved:       July 2013
Review schedule:    2 years
Next review:            20th August 2015
Document version:  2.0
Replaces version:    1.0



Appendix 1: Threshold graphs for neonatal jaundice 

Threshold graphs for neonatal jaundice will help healthcare professionals assess whether babies with jaundice should be given phototherapy or exchange transfusion. The graphs can be accessed directly from the NICE website: CG98: Neonatal jaundice: quick reference guide


  • Click on the ‘Treatment threshold graphs’ to access the graphs.
  • The sheet contains a treatment graph for each gestational age. Before printing, use the drop-down menu that is marked in red to choose the graph for the correct gestational age for each baby with jaundice.
  • Print off the graph and store it with the baby’s clinical notes.
  • Plot the baby’s bilirubin level on the graph each time it is measured, against the baby’s age. 
  • Each line on the horizontal (X) axis is equal to 6 hours and each line on the vertical (Y) axis is equal to 10 microl/litre.
  • Assess whether the threshold for either phototherapy or exchange transfusion has been reached.
  • Shade the ‘single’ or ‘multiple’ cells to show the type of phototherapy that the baby is receiving each day.
  • The graph reflects the baby’s actual age and should used until the baby is 14 days old. 
  • The baby’s ‘corrected’ gestational age should not be taken into consideration and should not move up to the next graph when the baby is 7 days old. 



Appendix 2: Threshold table NICE 2010)

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Threshold table
Appendix 2: Threshold table (NICE, 2010)

Appendix 3: Phototherapy pathway NICE 2010)

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Phototherapy pathway
Appendix 3: Phototherapy pathway (NICE, 2010)

Appendix 4: Exchange Transfusion NICE 2010)

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Exchange Transfusion
Appendix 4: Exchange Transfusion (NICE 2010)