What is newborn phototherapy?

Jaundice and Phototherapy
Newborn phototherapy is used to treat jaundice in the newborn. Photo © Stephanie Barbary/Shutterstock

Phototherapy is used to treat jaundice in newborn babies. Jaundice is when there is a build up of red blood cells in the baby's body because the liver is too immature to break down the cells quickly enough for them to be excreted in the stool. This can cause your baby to have a slightly yellow look to their skin, or even the whites of their eyes. The bilirubin level can be measured via your baby's blood.

Phototherapy for Jaundice

Phototherapy is how we can help your baby's body process these red blood cells faster. It is an artificial means of light typically, but can be done with sunlight something. Phototherapy can be done in a light box or by biliblanket. The lights from the box or the biliblanket help your baby's bilirubin come down by breaking it down into things that your baby's body can excrete in stool and urine.

Types of Phototherapy

The light box requires that your baby be placed inside the box where he or she can be exposed to the light. Many parents dislike the box because it means that, other than for feeding, they must keep the baby inside the box to get the light therapy. This means they don't get to hold the baby. 

"It was so hard to watch him in the box," says one mom. "I know he probably had to have an extra day of therapy because we pulled him out too much. But he would cry and cry, and we would cry and cry."

A biliblanket is slightly different in that the lights come in blanket form. This allows the parents to hold the baby more frequently. This can also help parents comply with the orders.

"With my first baby we had to use the box, that was miserable for everyone involved," she continued. "Thankfully by the time we had our second baby and the biliblankets were available it was much easier to parent the baby.

I was so grateful."

Phototherapy is best when your baby has as much skin exposed to the light as possible. This means your baby will be wearing only a diaper during the time of phototherapy. Your baby may also need shields for his or her eyes if using a traditional box light for phototherapy. This is to protect their eyes from damage caused by the light.

How Long is Phototherapy

Depending on how high the bilirubin levels are in your baby, the phototherapy can last from 24 hours to several days. Your doctor or home health nurse will test your baby's bilirubin levels to help determine when your baby can discontinue phototherapy. Typically the home health nurse will come to check the levels by drawing blood and taking it back to the lab. Alternatively you could take your baby to the hospital for blood draws. Once the lab has the reports, you will talk to your doctor and a decision will be made as to whether or not to continue phototherapy.

Sometimes it is really difficult to manage the care of your baby with all the moving parts involved.

Keep a log of questions and what's going on, including when you'll expect to hear from whom. Don't be afraid to call someone if you haven't heard back and expected to hear back.

The benefit of the biliblanket over the light box therapy is that you can hold your baby while the baby is being treated. Otherwise, your baby needs to stay inside the light box except for feedings and diaper changes.

Your Baby, Jaundice and Phototherapy. C.S. Mott's Children Hospital. Accessed 2/27/16.

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