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Jaundice in premature babies; what families need to know

Most premature babies will develop Jaundice

Around 80% of premature babies develop Jaundice - which is the term used to describe a yellowing of the skin, and the whites of the eyes. It normally develops in the first few days after birth, and fades away by the first week of life. A build up of a yellow substance, called Bilirubin, in the blood causes baby to subtly change colour. Bilirubin  is a waste product of the breakdown of red blood cells - and because premature babies have more red blood cells - and their liver is more immature, to deal with this breakdown process, they have a higher chance of developing Jaundice. 

How is jaundice in a premature baby treated?

The team looking after your premature baby will be able to check their jaundice levels through a heel prick blood sample, and then plot this result on a chart, which tells them whether you baby needs treatment for their Jaundice. Treatment, in the first instance is through light therapy - often call Phototherapy. Baby needs to be undressed (except for nappy), and have goggles over their eyes, for maximum exposure to the blue lights which are going to help breakdown the Bilirubin in their body. 

Its very important that your premature baby spends the maximum amount of time under their blue lights, in order to breakdown the jaundice levels, and return to normal. Most units can accommodate skin-to-skin, discuss it with your nurse directly. You might be able to negotiate a set amount of time baby could spend out with you. Or ask i the unit has a “Bili Blanket”  - which is a blue light blanket, you can wrap around baby while you are enjoying your cuddle. 

  • Your premature baby will have a little set of goggles to cover up and protect their eyes. Make sure that you turn off the blue light and take this off when you change nappies, and check that they don’t have any gunk or discharge coming from their eyes. 
  • Depending on what equipment the NICU has, you baby may be nursed in an incubator, a BabyTherm (an open cot with an overhead heater) or in an open cot with a lid on it, while they are under their blue lights. Its very important that we check your baby’s temperature regularly, to make sure that they don’t get too cold while they are undressed under the lights. It’s also important that we don’t overheat them under the extra lights. 
  • It is very important that Jaundice is treated quickly by your neonatal team - if you think there has been a change in your baby’s appearance at all, mention it to your nurse. 

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