Were the Signs of Kernicterus Neglected in Your Child?

The Signs of Kernicterus 

When a newborn begins to display signs of kernicterus, brain damage is starting to occur. Kernicterus is a medical emergency due to its rapid development, even in apparently healthy newborns.

As experienced kernicterus lawyers, we fully understand the tie between prompt medical intervention and the prevention of needless brain damage. The warning signs of acute (sudden onset) kernicterus are clearly recognizable and easily treated by doctors and medical staff. When a jaundiced baby receives proper medical treatment, the bilirubin will not rise to dangerous levels and kernicterus is averted.

The Signs of Acute Kernicterus are:

Jaundice – The most common indication that kernicterus may be present is a yellow or orange tint to the skin and the white areas of the baby’s eyes. However, relying solely on a visual diagnosis can lead to incurable errors. Jaundice can be hard to see in many infants, particularly those with a naturally darker skin color.

Lethargy – The infant is excessively sleepy and hard to wake, or difficult to keep awake. There is no startle reflex.

Sleeplessness – The baby will not sleep at all.

Inadequate feeding – The baby is not nursing or sucking from a bottle.

Abnormal muscle tone The medical terms for these signs of kernicterus are hypotonia (low tone) and hypertonia (high tone):

·       A hypotonic baby has poor muscle tone and lacks the muscle strength to maintain a posture, making the baby appear floppy and limp.

·       A hypertonic baby’s muscles will seem tense and rigid. Signs of more serious hypertonia include spasticity, “scissoring” of the legs, and stiffness of the neck in a backward bent position.

Arching – Muscle spasms cause the baby’s back or head to arch, or bend, backwards.  

High-pitched cry – Baby’s cry is shrill and inconsolable.

Fever Baby’s temperature climbs above 100°F.

Some symptoms are what doctors call “nonspecific,” meaning they are also associated with other serious newborn disorders. Even so, any indication of excessive bilirubin is critical and must not be ignored or misinterpreted.

Do all the signs of kernicterus appear at once?

No; however, the disease progresses rapidly over hours and days. At first, the jaundiced baby will show hypotonia (floppy baby), poor sucking reflex and lethargy. These symptoms may become more severe, and are followed by the baby displaying a high-pitched cry, spasticity, arching and fever.

When any of these symptoms appear, even at the onset, damage to the baby’s brain may be happening. Immediate treatment is essential to stop or minimize brain damage.

Signs of Chronic (Long Term) Kernicterus

The effects of kernicterus on the newborn brain are permanent, and can range from fine-motor disorders to severe quadriplegia. At a few months of age, the baby may display a few physical or mental abnormalities, or both. Around four or five years of age, the telltale signs of kernicterus brain damage become apparent.

Long-term consequences of kernicterus on children and adults include:

·       Cerebral palsy, quadriplegia

·       Hearing loss or deafness

·       Speech disorders

·       Impaired eye movements, particularly upward gaze

·       Mental retardation

·       Staining of the teeth

Were the Signs of Kernicterus Neglected in Your Child?

Delayed management of acute kernicterus represents an easily preventable neonatal brain injury. Our pursuit of justice reaches a new level of urgency when victims are children. Entire lifetimes are affected.

If doctors failed to recognize and manage the signs of kernicterus that occurred in your baby, they have breeched their duty of a reasonable standard of care owed to your child. The Ratzan Law Group can help you face the reality of your child’s dependency and financial needs caused by such medical negligence.

Contact us at 855-RLGLAW1 · (855-754-5291) or request a consultation with our kernicterus lawyers at no cost.


Kernicterus diagnosis is simple, readily available, and essential for every newborn.

More information for parents about signs of kernicterus to watch for.