What is Bilirubin? | What is Phototherapy?

What is bilirubin and why does your infant look jaundiced?  One way to monitor jaundice is by checking bilirubin levels.  Bilirubin is the by-product of red blood cell breakdown.  When babies are first born the jaudice level or bilirubin level does increase most of the time.  As long as bilirubin is at a “safe” level then there’s no need to worry.  Your child’s healthcare provider may  check the level in two ways.  One method is by using a handheld device placed on your infants skin.  This is a quick and painless way to measure bilirubin levels.  At this point in time, most hospitals have this capability, but most doctor’s offices do not yet due to the cost of the machine.  The other, more often utilized method to measure bilirubin is by blood sample.  Usually the infant’s heel is stuck with a sterile heelstick device, causing it to bleed and the blood sample is taken from there.  Sometimes the level is drawn from the infant’s vein instead.   The blood level will determine what is bilirubin going to cause or how it will affect your baby.

The bilirubin level is measured and compared to the infant’s age in hours of age.  The bili tool calculator can help professionals determine the level of risk for the infant.  This level of risk helps the professional determine whether or not intervention is necessary.

What is phototherapy?

One of the interventions is phototherapy.  This sometimes can be done in the home or sometimes the infant must either remain in the hospital or be admitted to the hospital for this treatment.  There are a few ways to deliver this therapy. One method most often utilized in the home setting is the bili blanket.  It’s a fiberoptic, rectangular, thin blanket that your infant lays directly on.  The blanket is directly against the infant’s skin, underneath clothing.  The wavelength of light it delivers helps transform the bilirubin so your infant can eliminate it from his system.  The other method of delivery is the phototherapy light.  Because the light is directly overhead, your infant’s eyes must be covered to protect him from the light rays.



The most common intervention for jaundice is frequent feedings (every 2-3 hrs) which in turn leads to lots of stools (which is how jaundice is eliminated from the body).  Most infants do not have any complications from jaundice and most do not need any intervention except for feeding frequently.

Sometimes when the level gets higher in the blood system, infants become very tired and difficult to feed.  So a breast feeding mom may need to pump and bottle feed her milk or you may need to undress your infant to his diaper to make him a little uncomfortable to take his bottle well.  Your infant’s healthcare provider will discuss jaundice with you and manage this condition in the first few days to weeks of life.

Please keep in mind that if jaundice appears after the newborn period, this is NOT normal and your should seek care for your child.

Be sure to ask lots of questions.  Jaundice in the newborn period is typically not a problem for most infants.  It depends on your infant’s weight, gestational age, how old your infant is, how the baby is eating and how frequently the infant is stooling, and what is bilirubin level?

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