Jaundice is a common neonatal condition that affects up to 50% of newborns. In most instances, treatment is not required and the high level of bilirubin beneath the skin tissues tends to reduce on its own after a couple of days.
When natural methods such as continued breastfeeding and formula feeding do not bring down the levels of bilirubin, non-intrusive treatments such as light therapy for babies may be required.
Your pediatrician will advise on the best course of treatment depending on the baby’s age, whether the baby was born pre-maturely (or not), the baby’s bilirubin levels and the rate at which it has been rising.
What Is Light Therapy for Babies?
Light therapy, also known as phototherapy is a painless, non-intrusive treatment method that uses light rays to lower the levels of bilirubin in the baby’s body. Blue rays are directed toward your baby’s skin and absorbed into the baby’s blood system.
Through a process of photo-oxidation, the bilirubin stored beneath your baby’s skin is broken down into other products, which are easily passed out of the baby’s system.
What Does A Treatment Session Look Like?
As mentioned earlier, light therapy for babies is painless and non-intrusive. During treatment at hospital, your baby will lie on a bed with just her diapers on. A beam of light will then be directed toward the baby from a distance of about six meters. Soft pads are used to cover the baby’s eyes to avoid irritation from looking at the light directly.
Phototherapy for babies uses blue rays, which are safe and do not have the same effects as direct exposure to harmful UV rays.
Therapy sessions may last up to 30 minutes after which you may hold and nurse the baby. The session then resumes for an additional 30 minutes and so on. The entire therapy may take up to 8 hours depending on your baby’s level of bilirubin. Treatment will be done for a couple of days to allow the liver to gain enough strength to process and balance out bilirubin in the baby’s body, on its own.
During light therapy, the doctor or nurse in charge will monitor the baby’s temperature to ensure they do not get too hot. The baby will also be monitored for signs of dehydration.
The baby may need to be fed your breast milk intravenously to ensure that they remain hydrated throughout the session. This especially happens when your baby needs to go through multiple, non-stop treatment sessions to drastically bring down the bilirubin levels.
During treatment, the levels of bilirubin will be tested every four to six hours and then every 6 to 12 hours when the levels begin to fall.The session will be terminated once the level of bilirubin is at a safe level. It may take up to two days to bring the levels down to this safe level.
What Types Of Phototherapy For Babies Are Available?
You may put your baby through two types of light therapy:
Conventional Light Therapy:
A beam of blue light waves are directed toward your baby as they lay on a bed.
Fiber Optic Phototherapy
Your baby sleeps on a bili blanket made from fiber optic cables that transmit light waves onto the child’s skin and into their blood system.
Both methods are effective at reducing and finally eliminating jaundice. Conventional light therapy is usually done in the hospital setting. Your baby can undergo through this therapy as soon as 24 hours after birth or a few days later if you notice symptoms of jaundice.
The bili blanket is typically used at home to make treatment convenient for your baby. Babies who are borne prematurely may also be put through the bili blanket system before they are subjected to conventional light therapy.
How Does The Bili Blanket Work?
The bili blanket is an additional or alternative treatment for your jaundiced child. It is best to use this treatment method after consulting with your doctor.
This special blanket uses fiber optics to transfer blue light waves to your baby’s back and into their blood system. The light stimulates the liver to breakdown bilirubin into simpler compounds that can be easily excreted from the baby’s body.
The light emitted from the bili blanket is warm enough, the same you would get under a shade on a sunny day. The blanket is made in such a way that it blocks out potentially harmful red light waves and UV rays.
When using this form of therapy, your child can remain fully clothed and you can continue to nurse her during treatment. Treatment can go on throughout the day (and night) if your doctor recommends this as the best way to bring down the bilirubin levels.
The bili blanket can effectively eliminate jaundice so your baby can live a healthy life. However, proper use is required to enjoy the benefits of this form of phototherapy.
Dos And Don’t’s For Bili Blankets
Things to watch out for:
- DON’T place anything on the light box or the blanket
- DON’T place your baby on the blanket without a light cover
- DON’T lay your baby on their chest; lay the baby on their back.
Some best practices:
- DO place the light box on a solid, non-absorbent and flat surface
- DO cover your baby with diapers
- DO place the child’s skin directly onto the blanket’s surface
- DO place a very light cover between your infant and the blanket
- DO leave the bili blanket on when nursing or holding your baby
- DO change the light cover if your baby soils on it
- DO set the intensity button to the highest reading
Should You Be Worried About Side Effects?
Light therapy for babies is a very safe treatment method that has been used for years without reports of adverse side effects.Following treatment, your baby’s skin may appear reddened, bleached or tanned.
This is a natural effect of exposing the skin to light waves—those patches of bleached, tanned or redden skin are the areas where the bilirubin compound has been broken down. Your baby’s normal skin color will return once the levels of bilirubin decrease.
Long-term exposure to light waves is not recommended. Researchers have found that when a child is overly exposed to phototherapy, they may develop an increased risk for DNA damage, weakened immune system and oxidative stress.
Overall, millions of little ones go through phototherapy and come out just fine after a few days. Unless your child is suffering from other complications in addition to jaundice, conventional or fiber optic light therapy will effectively lower the bilirubin to safe levels.