How Does Light Therapy Work For Jaundice In Newborns? Is It Safe For Your Baby?

If your baby is born with yellow skin and eyes, people often recognize it as jaundice. The most effective treatment they will tell you is to let your baby get some sun. While in the hospital, however, babies with jaundice will undergo light therapy. But, what is wrong with your newborn? How does light therapy work, and is it an effective treatment?

Newborn jaundice happens when there is a high level of bilirubin in the baby’s blood. It is a yellow substance produced when the red blood cells are broken down. A newborn baby’s liver is not very effective in getting rid of it and results in his yellowish skin and eye color. Phototherapy or light treatment is a special type of light for treating babies with this condition. In cases where jaundice does not improve through light therapy, some babies may need to undergo a blood transfusion. But without underlying health conditions, light therapy is a sufficient treatment.

What causes jaundice?

To some new mothers, the baby’s yellow appearance can become alarming. Some newborns develop yellowing of the skin only two to three days after birth. So, if you just got home from the hospital, you would normally worry if you did something wrong.

Jaundice is a common condition in newborn babies. But what causes it? Here are the possible reasons.

Physiologic jaundice

Newborn infants have a high number of red blood cells. These are broken down and replaced frequently. Thus, their red blood cells have a short lifespan. The process produces bilirubin that goes into the liver and passes out as poo.

But the baby’s liver, undeveloped as it is, cannot easily get rid of bilirubin in the blood. It sometimes gets reabsorbed into the intestine. It results in a condition known as hyperbilirubinemia.

After about two weeks to a month, the baby’s liver begins to function properly. It will then heal physiologic jaundice on its own without trouble. So, at around this time, you can expect your baby to get his pink glow back.

Breastfeeding jaundice

A newborn baby is breastfeeding. This is sometimes how newborn babies get jaundice, from mom's breastmilk.

In the first week of the baby’s life, his mom’s breastmilk is only starting to establish itself. Thus, the baby may not get the proper amount of milk that he needs. Inadequate milk increases the bilirubin levels. It also has a high chance of getting reabsorbed into the intestine.

More and frequent feedings can cure breastfeeding jaundice. It will also help stimulate the mother’s breast milk supply. Some babies may need supplementation, depending on the doctor’s recommendation.

Breastmilk jaundice

Breastmilk jaundice is a different condition from breastfeeding jaundice. For some reason, the mother’s breastmilk produces a substance that prevents the liver from processing bilirubin. This type of jaundice usually corrects itself when the baby reaches his ten weeks of life.

If the doctor rules out breastmilk jaundice, he may recommend a temporary interruption of breastfeeding. Your infant may undergo replacement feeding like expressed or formula milk for some time. However, mothers are strongly encouraged to maintain their milk production. So, keep on pumping breastmilk to help you gear up when your baby is ready.

Blood incompatibility

When a mom’s blood type does not match her baby, it can get dangerous. A baby will not develop antibodies as he should. Hence, the blood types will mostly react with each other. I personally have a friend who suffered a miscarriage as her body cancels out her growing fetus.

Most babies can survive the ordeal. However, they may also suffer the consequence. Some newborn infants undergo blood transfusion to support their survival. It is called exchange transfusion. During this process, the infant’s blood is removed and replaced with a compatible donor’s blood and plasma.

Light therapy is the best treatment for babies with this type of jaundice.

Underlying health conditions

There are instances when jaundice is a warning sign of other health problems. It includes the following conditions:

  • Glucose 6 Phosphate Dehydrogenase (G6PD)
  • Bile-duct or Gallbladder blockage
  • Underactive thyroid gland
  • Crigler-Najjar Syndrome (the body’s inability to process bilirubin)
  • Urinary Tract Infection

What is light therapy for jaundice?

A newborn baby is laying down and getting light therapy done to treat his jaundice.

Phototherapy or light therapy is a treatment that uses light, not from the sun, but through a special source. It lowers the bilirubin in the infant’s blood through photo-oxidation. This process adds oxygen to the blood that will dissolve the bilirubin.

More often, light therapy is the only treatment that your baby needs to help him recover quickly. It is usually done at the hospital. If your baby is healthy and without any complications, you can also do this treatment at home.

Let’s talk about sunlight for a while. Traditionally, it is the ancient treatment for babies with jaundice. But, since the sun emits ultraviolet rays, this can get harmful to the infant. It may risk causing sunburn in your baby since there is no way you can filter out the UV rays. So while it is a possible treatment, it is not always the best choice.

Light therapy is different. It is by far the safest treatment available. There are two types of light therapy to consider: conventional or fibreoptic phototherapy.

Conventional phototherapy

Conventional light therapy is the first option that hospitals will consider. It is the traditional process where the baby is placed under a halogen or fluorescent light. He will lay under it wearing only his diaper and an eye patch. The special blue light will break down the bilirubin so that the baby can pass it out through his stool and urine.

This light therapy treatment usually lasts for 48 hours. It is stopped for about 30 minutes after every 3 to 4 hours. The break is for moms to feed, change the diaper, or give their babies the skin-to-skin contact that the babies need.

Fibreoptic phototherapy

Babies, especially pre-term ones that need to be cuddled, can benefit from using fibreoptic light therapy. Instead of the overhead light, your baby will lie in a blanket with fiber-optic cables. These cables deliver the light that shines into your baby’s back. It is what we call the bili-blanket. 

There’s no need to undress the baby if you are using a bili-blanket. He does not also need to wear an eye patch. And, you may still be able to feed and hold your baby while he is undergoing treatment.

However, bili-blanket may not always be available in your area. You can tap your local medical supply and equipment store for its availability if you need it for home treatment.

Neonatal jaundice complication

A mom is looking at her newborn baby getting light therapy treatment done for jaundice.

Untreated jaundice can cause a severe complication called Kernicterus. However, this complication is rare. It is because babies eventually heal themselves when their body processes kick into gear. For infants with untreated jaundice, the rapid rising of bilirubin in the blood can get dangerous. It can cause damage to the brain and the central nervous system.

Here are few simple steps you can do to help ward off this condition:

  • Screening. Hospitals will usually conduct a newborn physical examination and screening within 72 hours after birth. Visual examination is done to find out if your baby has the possibility of developing jaundice.
  • Monitoring. Keep an eye on the signs when you are at home. If your baby develops yellowing of the skin or eyes, call your doctor. Check if you can spot any yellowing when pressing on his skin. If your baby has yellow-colored urine and pale poop, he may have high bilirubin in his blood.
  • Treatment. Prompt treatment is important to prevent harmful complications. Take your baby to the hospital so the doctor can perform the necessary tests and start with the treatment.

FAQs

Why does my baby need an eye patch during light therapy?

Conventional phototherapy is safe. However, the blue light that it emits can cause retinal damage. Therefore, babies need an eye patch to protect their eyes and a diaper to protect their genitals.

Does phototherapy have a side effect?

Skin rashes and loose stools are the common side effect of phototherapy. Overheating and dehydration are also possible. That is why their body temperature, skin color, and wet diapers are monitored routinely.

My baby developed a grayish-skin after the treatment. Is it normal?

In some cases, babies may develop what we call the bronze baby syndrome. His skin will have an almost gray-brown color as well as his urine. It is a side effect of light therapy and will go away a few weeks after the treatment.

When should I call the doctor if my baby has already undergone treatment?

If your baby’s yellowing persists after two weeks, and it seems to get worse, call your doctor. If he refuses to feed, has a fever, losing weight, or gets extra sleepy, you also need to inform your pediatrician.

Takeaway

Neonatal jaundice is prevalent among newborn infants. It happens due to his underdeveloped liver that causes bilirubin buildup in the blood. But jaundice is not always a cause for worry. Once the baby develops his body, neonatal conditions, including jaundice, will heal on their own.

Parents should take comfort with the fact that doctors are always a call away if they suspect something. So when you sense something is wrong with your baby, do not hesitate to keep in touch with your pediatrician. Has your child ever experienced jaundice? Let us and other parents know how you’ve dealt with it.

Ann Marie is a licensed nurse in the Philippines. She experienced handling and assisting deliveries of newborns into the world. She also trained in labor rooms and pediatric wards while in nursing school - helping soon-to-be mothers and little kids in the process. Though not a mother by nature but a mother by heart, Ann Marie loves to take care of her younger cousins as well as nephews and nieces during her free time.

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