What is Phototherapy?

By Sandra Everets

September 27, 2019

I'm a Mama of two beautiful children, Evelyn & Noah. I've worked in Obstetrics for the past 14 years. I've have the amazing pleasure of working with women and their new families through their pregnancy, labour and delivery & post partum. I look forward to getting to know your family.

Have you ever wondered why your newborn is hanging out in that tanning bed like incubator\blanket with cool shades on? Phototherapy is treatment with a special type of light (not sunlight). It is used to treat newborn jaundice by lowering the bilirubin levels in your baby’s blood through a process called photo-oxidation. 

Now let’s back up a little and talk about jaundice in the newborn to start with. Jaundice is a yellow tint to a newborn’s skin and the white part of their eyes. It is a sign that there is too much bilirubin in the baby’s blood. Bilirubin is a yellow substance that the body creates when it replaces old red blood cells. Your baby’s liver helps to break down the substance so it can be removed from the body in the poop.

Newborn jaundice is a common condition, especially in babies born before 38 weeks’ gestation and some breastfed babies. Newborn jaundice usually occurs because a baby’s liver isn’t mature enough to get rid of bilirubin in the bloodstream. Jaundice usually appears in the first 5 days of life and babies in Canada are routinely checked for jaundice before they leave the hospital at 24 -48hours after birth.  Most babies have mild jaundice and it gets better or goes away on its own within a week or two without causing problems. But jaundice and high levels of bilirubin can be dangerous if left high and untreated. 

What does a baby with jaundice look and act like?

  • The skin becomes more yellow
  • Baby is sluggish and not sucking well
  • Difficult to wake for feeds and very sleepy
  • Baby has a high pitch cry
  • Baby isn’t gaining weight or is feeding poorly

How do we treat Jaundice?

Approximately 60% of term babies and 86% of preterm babies will develop jaundice. Your baby will need treatment if the bilirubin level is above the normal range for newborns.  He or she will be put under blue-green lights to treat jaundice. This is called phototherapy! The skin absorbs the light, which changes the bilirubin so that the body can get rid of it easier. It is done in the hospital (usually at your bedside) and can be done with your baby being laid under the special lights with their eye covered or where your baby lies on a blanket that shines onto your baby’s back.  Both methods aim to expose your baby’s skin to as much light as possible.  

What can you do?

If your baby has jaundice, you have an important role, as their Mama, to play. First, you want to look closely at your baby’s skin a couple times a day to make sure that the colour is returning to normal. If your baby has dark skin remember to look at the whites of their eyes. Second, take your baby for any follow-up appointments and bloodwork arranged by your healthcare provider. Third, call your doctor if the yellow colour gets brighter after your baby is 3 days old or they are displaying any of the signs listed above.  And finally, the best thing you can do to reduce jaundice is to make sure your baby gets enough to eat! Whether you are breastfeeding or bottle feeding you want to make sure your baby is feeding 8-12 times in 24hours. If you aren’t sure if your baby is getting enough or if feeding is well-established reach out to your local Mama Coach and we are happy to come to your home and do a feeding assessment and help!

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