Your Baby, Jaundice, and Light Therapy

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You want your baby to start living healthy and happy. However, things happen, and your baby can potentially become sick. Jaundice is one of the most common conditions that affect newborn babies, and it’s estimated 6 out of every 10 babies develop jaundice. 

Jaundice is usually a harmless condition in newborns that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. This condition occurs when there’s a build-up of bilirubin in the blood. Biliburn is a yellow substance produced during the normal breakdown process of the red blood cells. The liver removes bilirubin from the blood in children and adults, passing it through the bowels and exiting the body.

However, a newborn baby’s liver cannot remove bilirubin as easily as an adult. This can create a build-up of bilirubin if the newborn has problems processing it and passing it through the body.

While most jaundice cases go away on their own, some newborns need help to lower bilirubin levels in the body.

What Causes Jaundice?

Jaundice can occur in a newborn for different reasons:

  • Physiological jaundice: the most common reason for jaundice in newborns is due to an immature liver. Jaundice usually occurs 2 to 3 days of age, disappears one week or two, and is harmless.
  • Breastfeeding jaundice: breastfeeding jaundice can occur when the newborn doesn’t consume enough breastmilk. It occurs in 5-10% of newborns.
  • Breast-milk jaundice: breast-milk jaundice occurs in 1-2% of breast-fed babies. It happens when some mothers produce a specific substance in their breastmilk. This substance causes the newborn’s intestines to absorb the bilirubin back into the body. This usually occurs within the first week of birth and goes away within two weeks - it’s not harmful.
  • Blood group incompatibility (Rh or ABO problems): if the newborn and mother have different blood types, the mother can produce antibodies that can destroy the newborn’s red blood cells. It causes an immediate buildup of bilirubin in the newborn’s body, occurring during the first 24-hours of life. It’s a severe form of jaundice.

How Is Jaundice Diagnosed?

Doctors can easily spot a baby with jaundice based on the yellowing of the skin and the whites of their eyes. Typically, newborns are checked for jaundice prior to leaving the hospital.

Babies who contract jaundice undergo blood tests to check for bilirubin levels. High levels of bilirubin have the potential to become serious.

Treatments for Jaundice

Most cases of jaundice disappear within a week or two of treatment. However, some cases are quite serious and need to undergo treatment.

Light treatment aids with eliminating bilirubin in the blood. The baby’s skin absorbs the wavelengths, altering bilirubin which can pass easily through their bowels.

Phototherapy treatment has long been used to treat jaundice, with a row of lights or a spotlight directed at the undressed newborn from a healthy distance. Two soft eye patches are applied over the eyes for protection. Luckily, today’s technology of phototherapy can deliver effective treatment without any of the former inconveniences.