Breast Milk Jaundice

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Continuing Education Activity

Breast milk jaundice is a type of jaundice that occurs in neonates due to breastfeeding. It happens within the first week of life due to the abnormal accumulation of bilirubin, causing a yellowish discoloration to the neonate's skin known as jaundice. This activity reviews the evaluation and treatment of breast milk jaundice and explains interprofessional team members' role in managing patients with this condition.


  • Describe the etiology of breast milk jaundice.
  • Review the pathophysiology of breast milk jaundice.
  • Identify the use of phototherapy in the management of patients with breast milk jaundice.
  • Outline the importance of collaboration and communication among the interprofessional team to improve outcomes for patients affected by breast milk jaundice.


Jaundice, also known as hyperbilirubinemia, is a frequently encountered clinical problem in neonates. About 60-80% of all term or late-term healthy newborns will develop some degree of hyperbilirubinemia.[1] The definition of neonatal hyperbilirubinemia has typically been total serum bilirubin (TSB) levels within the high-risk zone or greater than the 95th percentile for age within the first six days of life.[1] When total serum bilirubin levels rise, a yellowish discoloration of the infant’s skin and sclera occurs and is referred to as jaundice. Neonatal hyperbilirubinemia has a higher frequency in breastfed infants compared to formula-fed infants.[2] The two common mechanisms for this are “breastfeeding jaundice” and “breast milk jaundice.”

Breast milk jaundice was first described in 1963. Arias et al. noted that some breastfed infants had unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia that persisted beyond the third week of life. [3] Breast milk jaundice typically presents in the first or second week of life and usually spontaneously resolves even without discontinuation of breastfeeding. However, it can persist for 8-12 weeks of life before resolution.[2] Infants with breast milk jaundice often have higher serum bilirubin peaks and slower decline, compared to the hyperbilirubinemia trend associated with other etiologies, leading to a longer resolution time.[4] Pathological causes of unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia should be ruled out before a breast milk jaundice diagnosis can be made.


The exact etiology of breast milk jaundice has not been determined. Most of the proposed etiologies involve the factors present in the human breast milk itself. Other hypotheses suggest potential genetic mutations present in the affected neonates.

Some human breast milk factors that may be related to breast milk jaundice's etiology include pregnane-3a,20ß-diol, interleukin IL1ß, ß-glucuronidase, epidermal growth factor, and alpha-fetoprotein.[5] The presence of pregnane-3a,20ß-diol, is thought to inhibit bilirubin's conjugation, which in turn impedes bilirubin excretion. ß-glucuronidase is an enzyme naturally present in the body that deconjugates bilirubin in the intestinal brush border, leading to increased serum reabsorption instead of excretion.[2] Studies have shown that this enzyme's activity within formula milk is negligible, but it is considerable in human breast milk.[6] Interleukine IL1ß is thought to have a cholestatic effect that leads to hyperbilirubinemia.[5] The epidermal growth factor is present in higher concentrations in human breast milk and strictly breastfed infants' serum. The reason is that this substance enhances intestinal resorption of bilirubin and reduces intestinal motility in the neonatal period, leading to increased unconjugated bilirubin levels.[2]The serum of babies with breast milk jaundice often has elevated levels of alpha-fetoprotein. The mechanism underlying this is not yet understood.

Several studies have shown that mutations in the coding region of the UGT1A1 gene increase the risk of developing breast milk jaundice. Mutations in this gene's regulatory region are known to cause Crigler-Najjar and Gilbert syndrome, two syndromes known to cause persistent hyperbilirubinemia[7].


The frequency of breast milk jaundice within the United States is about 20 to 30% of neonates who are mostly breastfed.[8] About 30-40% of breastfed infants are expected to have bilirubin levels greater than or equal to 5 mg/dL, with about 2 to 4% of exclusively breastfed infants having bilirubin levels above 10 mg/dL in week 3 of life.[1] International studies in countries such as Turkey and Taiwan found that 20 to 28% of neonates had breast milk jaundice present at four weeks. Total serum bilirubin levels were also noted to be greater than or equal to 5 mg/dL.[7] The international frequency of breast milk jaundice is not extensively reported but is thought to be similar to the United States frequency. No reports exist demonstrating a sex-related higher incidence.


Before discussing the mechanism for breast milk jaundice, it is crucial to understand neonatal bilirubin metabolism and why neonates, in general, are affected by hyperbilirubinemia. Newborns have markedly increased bilirubin production compared to their adult counterparts, secondary to a higher blood volume and hemoglobin concentration, a shorter red blood cell lifespan, and liver enzymes' physiological immaturity. These factors combined result in relatively high production of unconjugated form, which is not water-soluble. To excrete bilirubin from the body, there is the conversion of the unconjugated form to the conjugated (water-soluble) form is required. The conjugation process occurs within the hepatocyte by bilirubin uridine diphosphate glucuronosyltransferase (bilirubin-UGT) enzyme. UGT1A1 gene codes this enzyme production. Therefore those with genetic mutations in this gene are unable to conjugate bilirubin adequately. This enzyme is also significantly less active in neonates than in adults, leading to less efficient conjugation. After conjugation and excretion from hepatocytes, the bilirubin passes to the small intestine, where it gets converted to stercobilin by gut flora and subsequently excreted via the stool. 

Infants have a decreased concentration of gut flora needed for this process than adults, leading to a higher concentration of bilirubin remaining within the intestinal tract. The enzyme ß-glucuronidase will deconjugate bilirubin remaining within the intestine. After this process, it is returned to the liver for re-conjugation via portal circulation. This process is known as "enterohepatic circulation." Neonates have significantly higher activity of the enzyme ß-glucuronidase and a more permeable gut wall, leading to overall higher concentrations of unconjugated bilirubin and increased enterohepatic circulation.[2] 

Basic and clinical studies were conducted and are still ongoing to investigate breast milk jaundice's pathophysiology by studying breast milk's effect on the processes discussed above.[9][10] A visual summary of bilirubin metabolism and suggested mechanisms of breast milk jaundice is shown in figure 1.

History and Physical

Breast milk jaundice typically presents within the first two weeks of life in an otherwise healthy infant who is predominantly breastfed. These infants exhibit normal weight gain with adequate production of urine and stools.[2]. A total serum bilirubin level above 1.5 mg/dL is considered elevated at this time, but most infants will not appear jaundiced unless the level is above 5 mg/dL. If the infant does appear jaundiced, this yellowish discoloration of their skin and/or sclera is typically first noted in the face and then proceeds to the trunk and extremities.


The evaluation of a patient presenting with hyperbilirubinemia must include a work-up to rule out pathological causes of hyperbilirubinemia before making the breast milk jaundice diagnosis. First, both unconjugated and conjugated bilirubin levels must be measured. Conjugated bilirubin levels higher than 1 mg/dL or 20% of the total bilirubin level indicate conjugated hyperbilirubinemia (also known as cholestasis or direct hyperbilirubinemia). Once cholestasis is suspected, disorders such as biliary atresia, neonatal hepatitis, and other bilirubin excretion disorders. Both breast milk jaundice and hemolytic anemias cause elevated unconjugated bilirubin levels. Hemolytic causes for hyperbilirubinemia include ABO incompatibility, G6PD deficiency, hereditary spherocytosis, and other antibody-mediated hemolysis. Hemolysis assessment should consist of direct Coombs’ testing, measurement of hemoglobin, hematocrit, and reticulocyte count, a peripheral blood smear, and genetic testing.

The clinician should consider other non-hemolytic causes of prolonged hyperbilirubinemia, such as Crigler-Najjar or Gilbert syndrome but need not investigate them unless jaundice persists longer than what is expected for breast milk jaundice. Galactosemia and hypothyroidism can also cause unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia, hence should be ruled out.[2][11]

Treatment / Management

Treatment is not necessary for breast milk jaundice unless the infant's total serum bilirubin level is greater than the phototherapy guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).[12] The first step of management is phototherapy. It works by using light to convert bilirubin molecules into water-soluble isomers that the body can excrete. If the total serum bilirubin level remains below 12 mg/dL, the recommendation is to continue breastfeeding. If the total serum bilirubin level is higher than 12 mg/dL but below the phototherapy level, and further investigation shows no hemolysis evidence, the recommendations are also to continue breastfeeding.[2] When the bilirubin is greater than 20, a brief 24-hour cessation of breastfeeding may be beneficial. 

Differential Diagnosis

Differential diagnosis of breast milk jaundice include:

  • Physiological jaundice of newborns
  • Hemolysis associated hyperbilirubinemia ( ABO, G6PD, hereditary spherocytosis, others)
  • Breastfeeding jaundice ( inadequate milk intake and dehydration)
  • Genetic causes ( Crigler-Najjar, pyruvate kinase deficiency, and Gilbert syndromes)
  • Cholestasis (Biliary atresia, neonatal hepatitis, choledochal cyst, and disorders of bilirubin excretion)


Overall, infants' prognosis with breast milk jaundice is excellent as it is a self-limited condition that usually resolves around 12 weeks of age.


The most feared complication of all neonatal hyperbilirubinemia, including breast milk jaundice, is acute bilirubin encephalopathy acutely and kernicterus (chronic bilirubin encephalopathy) in the long term. This concern is due to its potential for permanent neurodevelopmental delay. It is a rare complication of breast milk jaundice and occurs in less than 2% of breastfed term infants who have no evidence of hemolytic anemia.[13] 

Deterrence and Patient Education

Parents of affected infants should be educated about the nature of breast milk jaundice and the expected clinical course. The mother of the affected newborn should continue to breastfeed unless otherwise contraindicated.[9][14]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Although jaundice in breastfed infants is a common and usually benign finding, it cannot be ignored. Clear communication between all healthcare team members and the parents is necessary to provide medical guidance and rule out other neonatal hyperbilirubinemia causes. With routine newborn evaluation and timely management, kernicterus, the most severe complication of neonatal hyperbilirubinemia, is preventable, and the successful continuation of breastfeeding is possible.

(Click Image to Enlarge)
Figure 1: A summary of bilirubin metabolism and suggested mechanisms of breast milk Jaundice
Figure 1: A summary of bilirubin metabolism and suggested mechanisms of breast milk Jaundice
Contributed by Mahdi Alsaleem, MD
Article Details

Article Author

Stephanie Bratton

Article Author

Rebecca M. Cantu

Article Editor:

Mitchell Stern


1/17/2023 6:15:48 PM



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