Hand to Hold's Official Blog: Written by Parents for Parents


It’s common for preemies to contract jaundice, which is when their skin turns yellow-ish from increased bilirubin in the blood, usually just a few days after birth. Bilirubin is produced when the body breaks down old red blood cells, and is normally processed in the liver and excreted through the intestine, coming out in the baby’s poop. Because premature babies are not fully developed, their livers cannot always process all the bilirubin (and often they’re not producing much stool) so the bilirubin levels rise without a way to escape. Only extremely high levels of bilirubin are harmful, possibly causing brain damage. The NICU nurses monitor your babie’s bilirubin levels, to make sure it doesn’t reach a harmful level.

If your baby has jaundice, he’ll most likely be treated with phototherapy, meaning he’s placed undressed under special lights or in a light-producing blanked (the blanket is often used for jaundice breastfeeding) that breaks down bilirubin in the skin. Part of phototherapy is covering the baby’s sensitive eyes from the constant brilliant light with a soft cloth.

Because bilirubin levels fluctuate, phototherapy is used on and off as needed. This typically lasts under a week, but occasionally longer. As a side note, it’s uncommon for premature babies to need any treatment other than phototherapy, but if the baby’s bilirubin levels reach close to harmful levels, the doctor can replace the baby’s blood containing bilirubin with blood from a blood bank in an exchange transfusion.

(Adapted from the Parent Manual given to parents by the University of Utah Hospital NICU.)

bili lights

Afton Mower About Afton Mower

After Mower (UT) lost her firstborn son at 21 weeks.  Her daughter was born a year and a half later at 27 weeks.  The NICU was overwhelming and isolating and it was through those two experiences she was led to found this social hub for parents to find the support they needed. Afton also gave birth to another daughter, born two days overdue after four months of strict bedrest. She believes it is a tender experience to hold a special baby in your arms when his spirit returns to his heavenly home, a miracle to watch tiny babies survive the risks of prematurity and a blessing to hold a healthy full-term baby after months of difficulty and sacrifices.


  1. susan liebowitz says:

    what is considered high risk billirubin requiring more than photolight therapy?
    Our grandbaby girl, born 5 lbs (now 4 lbs ll oz) is was discharged yesterdayfrom maternity with an rate of 11. Today seen by pediatrician, level was up to 19 and baby admitted to preemie hospital. She will be in light theraphy until at least Sunday. Mom is nursing. Question-where is 19 in the risk category? tku

    • Sorry, I have no idea. I recommend you ask the pediatrician about the numbers. That must be very difficult having the baby readmitted to the NICU. I hope she gets well quickly!

    • Worried dad says:

      19 is high risk, especially accompanied with poor feeding, lethargy, yellow color all the way to legs, and a high pitched cry. 25 can cause brain damage and may require a blood transfusion

Speak Your Mind