Your Baby, Jaundice, and Light Therapy

Bilirubin is a yellow substance that comes from the normal breakdown of red blood cells. The liver removes bilirubin from the blood and passes it into the bowels so it can leave the body.

A newborn baby’s liver does not remove bilirubin, as well as an adult, does. Jaundice happens when bilirubin builds up faster than the liver can break it down and pass it from the body.

Most types of jaundice go away on their own. Others need treatment to lower bilirubin levels.

What Causes Jaundice?

Jaundice can be caused by different problems:

  • Physiological jaundice: The most common cause of newborn jaundice and occurs in more than 50% of babies. Because the baby has an immature liver. Jaundice first appears at 2 to 3 days of age. It usually disappears by 1 to 2 weeks of age, and the levels of bilirubin are harmless.
  • Breastfeeding jaundice: Breastfeeding jaundice may occur when your baby does not drink enough breast milk. It occurs in 5% to 10% of newborns.
  • Breast-milk jaundice: Breast-milk jaundice occurs in 1% to 2% of breast-fed babies. It is caused by a special substance that some mothers produce in their milk. This substance causes the baby’s intestine to absorb more bilirubin back into his body than normal. This type of jaundice starts at 4 to 7 days of age. It may last 3 to 10 weeks. It is not harmful.
  • Blood group incompatibility (Rh or ABO problems): If a baby and mother have different blood types, sometimes the mother produces antibodies that destroy the newborn’s red blood cells. This causes a sudden buildup of bilirubin in the baby’s blood. This serious type of jaundice usually begins during the first 24 hours of life. Rh problems formerly caused the most severe form of jaundice.

How Is Jaundice Diagnosed?

Doctors can tell if a baby has jaundice based on the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Usually, all newborns are checked for jaundice before leaving the hospital or birth center.

Babies with jaundice will get a blood test to check bilirubin levels. Sometimes, a light machine that measures bilirubin in the skin is used. But if the level is high, a blood test must confirm the result.

High bilirubin levels can lead to serious problems. So doctors carefully watch babies with jaundice.

Treatments for Jaundice

Some types of jaundice will disappear within a week or two without treatment. Other babies will require treatment because of the severity of jaundice.

Light treatment is the process of using light to eliminate bilirubin in the blood. The baby’s skin and blood absorb these light waves. These light waves are absorbed by your baby’s skin and blood and change bilirubin into products, which can pass through their system.

For many years, phototherapy treatment in the hospital has been provided by a row of lights or a spotlight suspended at a distance form a baby. This would provide light shining directly on an undressed baby (with a diaper on) whose eyes would need protection from the light with soft eye patches applied. Today, advancements in technology have led to a new phototherapy system that gives effective treatment without the inconveniences of conventional phototherapy treatment.