When babies are born, we delight in their soft skin and tiny miracle bodies. We take joy in parents’ carefully-curated social media feeds, and adore every perfect dimple and roll. But one surprisingly common thing we don’t often see shared on social media is a newborn with jaundice. That’s thanks in part to phototherapy at St. Boniface Hospital.
Jaundice occurs when there is a build-up of a naturally-occurring substance in the blood, called bilirubin.
A condition that causes babies’ skin and the whites of their eyes to turn yellow, it can occur in as many as 60 per cent of newborns within the first week of life. Usually it’s temporary and harmless, affecting both full term and premature babies.
Red blood cells have a short life span, and bilirubin is released into the bloodstream when the body breaks down old red blood cells. Our livers break down bilirubin, but the enzyme that does this work is not active at birth – it often takes a few days for it to “turn on.”
“We do regular blood work to track bilirubin in babies until those levels come down. We’re really on top of that,” said Sue McMahon, Program Team Manager of St. Boniface Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Blue light therapy
Phototherapy works by changing bilirubin into a more digestible product, making it easier to pass through babies’ systems. Babies’ skin and blood absorb the blue light waves, and the bilirubin is broken down, eventually eliminating the jaundice.
St. Boniface Hospital treats babies with “biliblankets”, which are special blankets that produce soft blue light. The Hospital also uses direct, concentrated phototherapy in some cases.
“Intense blue light therapy is for babies who have already had time with biliblankets, but that intervention hasn’t worked,” McMahon explained.
The babies are placed on an open bed in the NICU with a warming light, as well as the blue light, to expose as much of their little bodies to the phototherapy as possible. To protect their delicate eyes from irritation or damage, the babies wear protective eye shades.
While blue light treatment may look like something out of Star Trek, it can be a scary experience for parents. Elevated bilirubin levels can lead to a condition called kernicterus, where too much bilirubin passes into the brain and causes damage.
Luckily, with vigilant blood work and attentive staff, babies rarely require intense blue light therapy treatment in St. Boniface Hospital’s NICU.
“We really try to stay on top of this, because we know it can be quite serious,” McMahon said. “We’re very lucky to have our donors – that’s what donations are for: saving babies’ lives so they can go home sooner and grow stronger, faster.”
You can help care for our littlest ones. Support St. Boniface Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit today.