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Learning About Hemolytic Disease in Newborns

What is hemolytic disease?

Hemolytic disease happens when substances called antibodies in the mother's blood cause red blood cells in her baby's blood to be destroyed. This can occur when the blood types of a mother and her baby do not match.

All blood has something called an Rh antigen (or Rh factor). This is what makes a blood type positive or negative.

You may have Rh-negative blood and your baby has Rh-positive blood. If the two mix, your body will make antibodies. This is called Rh sensitization.

What can you expect when your baby has hemolytic disease?

Some babies need special care, such as being in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This may be scary for you. But the hospital staff understands this. They will explain what happens and will answer your questions.

A newborn with mild hemolytic disease may have jaundice or anemia. Jaundice makes the skin and the white part of the eyes look yellow. Anemia happens when a lot of red blood cells are destroyed. In severe cases, jaundice, anemia, and swelling can be very dangerous or deadly.

How is it treated?

Some babies with hemolytic disease may need to be delivered early. A very sick baby may need blood transfusions before birth, while still inside the mother, or after birth. In severe cases, a doctor can give blood to the fetus through the mother's belly.

Some babies may need other care, such as:

  • Extra oxygen. It is given to the baby through a tube in the nose or throat.
  • Phototherapy. This uses a special kind of light to treat jaundice.
  • Medicines and vitamins. These can help your baby make red blood cells.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

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