Breast Milk Jaundice

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated November 9, 2013.

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What is Breast Milk Jaundice?

Jaundice is a very common condition in newborn babies that gives their skin and the whites of their eyes a yellow color.  Developing 2-3 days following birth, physiologic jaundice has usually disappeared completely by the time a baby is two weeks old.  Breast milk jaundice follows a similar developmental pattern of physiologic jaundice, though it lasts well beyond the typical 10-14 days.  It is usually not diagnosed until 10-15 days (when physiologic jaundice would be disappearing), though it can be diagnosed as early as Day 4 or 5 when a mother’s milk has “come in”.  Breast milk jaundice can last from 2 – 12 weeks, but serum bilirubin levels typically peak around Day 14.  It is the buildup of bilirubin in the blood that causes the yellowing of the skin.

What Causes Breast Milk Jaundice?

For reasons that are not yet understood, the breast milk of some mothers increases the circulation of bilirubin in her baby.  Typically, the liver filters bilirubin from the bloodstream and it exits the body through stools.  However, in newborns, bilirubin can build up faster than the liver can filter it, which is known as hyperbilirubinemia.  Breast milk jaundice is an extension of physiologic jaundice.  Researchers believe there is an unidentified substance in the milk of some mothers that causes breast milk jaundice.  It may last many weeks, but it is harmless..

How do you treat Breast Milk Jaundice?

Breast milk jaundice does not require special treatment.  In fact, the best course is to continue exclusive breastfeeding as well as to be monitored by your doctor. With the uniqueness of breast milk making it the perfect food for babies as well as the known and documented negative health implications of formula that can affect a person over his lifetime, continued breastfeeding is best.  Optimal breastfeeding positioning and latch are important for any jaundice condition, especially breast milk jaundice, to ensure the baby is able to remove as much milk as possible from the breast.  The condition will slowly resolve itself and the chances of developing bilirubin encephalopathy are rare. 1

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  1. Gartner LM. (2001) Breastfeeding and jaundice Journal of Perinatology 21 Suppl 1:S25-9; discussion S35-9