Jaundice is not dangerous for your baby if your baby is otherwise healthy and the level of bilirubin in his or her blood remains within normal limits. If the level of bilirubin begins to rise above safe levels, treatment is necessary to bring the bilirubin back down to safe levels. If the levels are not being properly monitored or if timely treatment is not provided, the baby may be at risk of suffering brain injury (kernicterus).
Who is at risk?
In order to protect babies from the risk of brain injury, babies with risk factors need to be identified and carefully monitored after birth, often in a hospital setting, to ensure their bilirubin levels do not rise to a dangerous level. This includes babies who:
- are born premature;
- develop jaundice in the first 48 hours of life;
- have an infection;
- have bruising;
- are from certain ethnic backgrounds including East Asian or Mediterranean families;
- are born to mothers with a different blood type;
- are not feeding well;
- have a sibling who had newborn jaundice.
How can the level of bilirubin be measured?
A baby’s bilirubin level can be measured instantaneously by a small device called a bilirubinometer, which shines light onto your baby’s skin. It can also be measured by a pin prick blood sample sent to a lab. Assessing the level of jaundice simply by looking at the colour of a baby’s skin is not as reliable as assessing it with a bilirubinometer or blood sample.
What is the treatment for high levels of bilirubin?
The treatment for high levels of bilirubin depends on the specific level of the bilirubin and risk factors for the baby, and may include:
- Phototherapy (ultraviolet light treatment). This is where a baby is placed under special lights and the light helps to break down bilirubin.
- Blood exchange transfusion. This is used in serious cases where it is important to remove the high bilirubin levels from the blood stream quickly or where the baby’s blood is affected by the mother’s blood type.