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Bilirubin Lights

What are bilirubin lights?

Bilirubin lights, also called bili lights or phototherapy, are a treatment for newborn jaundice. They can help a baby with jaundice get rid of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a substance that is made each day as red blood cells break down.

When are bilirubin lights used?

Normally the liver removes bilirubin from the blood, but newborn babies’ livers don’t do this well right after birth. When there is a lot of bilirubin, the skin and whites of the eyes get yellow. The yellow color of the skin and eyes is called jaundice. Usually the extra bilirubin doesn’t cause any other problems and goes away in a couple weeks, when the liver is more mature and able to help your baby get rid of the bilirubin.

Rarely, the level of bilirubin can get very high, causing a dangerous condition called kernicterus. Kernicterus may cause brain damage and problems like cerebral palsy, hearing loss, vision or teeth problems, and problems with learning, growth, and behavior. Early detection and treatment of severe jaundice with bilirubin lights can lower the level of bilirubin and prevent kernicterus. The light changes the bilirubin into a form that can leave your baby’s body in urine and bowel movements.

How do I prepare my baby for this procedure?

Your baby will have a blood test or skin test to check the bilirubin level before the treatment.

What happens during bilirubin light treatment?

Your baby can be treated with bilirubin lights at the hospital. Milder cases of jaundice may be treated at home, but the lights available for use at home are not as strong as the lights available in the hospital.

Your baby will lie on a soft pad under the lights wearing just a diaper. Your baby’s eyes will be covered with goggles or eye patches to protect the eyes from the light. The lights will not hurt your baby's skin. Your baby will probably be placed in warm plastic box to help your baby stay warm.

The amount of time your baby spends under the lights will depend on how high the bilirubin level is and how your baby responds to the treatment. It takes about 4 to 6 hours for the lights to start bringing the bilirubin level down. Some babies are under the lights for a day or less. Others may be under the lights for several days.

Your baby may need more breast milk or formula while under the lights. Some babies need an IV for extra fluid. The extra fluid helps the baby urinate more so that the bilirubin can be removed from the body.

If the bilirubin level gets very high, and the bilirubin lights cannot bring it down fast enough to prevent kernicterus, your baby may need a special type of blood transfusion called an exchange transfusion. The blood transfusion will replace most of your baby's blood with donated blood. The donated blood has a low amount of bilirubin.

What happens after bilirubin light treatment?

Your baby will need a blood test or a scan of the skin to check the bilirubin level after treatment. This test may be repeated several times during treatment.

Follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your child’s provider:

  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

What are the risks of bilirubin lights?

Bilirubin lights are safe for most babies.

Written by Robert Brayden, MD, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-02-03
Last reviewed: 2014-02-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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