The first few days with their newborns can be stressful for parents of babies born with jaundice. It's not unusual for a baby's immature system to be unable to adequately break down red blood cells, leading to high levels of bilirubin and a yellowish cast to their skin.
Babies with jaundice are usually hospitalized for treatment. A new study study finds, however, that there's a low cost and low-stress alternative to the current hospital-based treatment. It comes in the form of sunlight.
“All babies can get jaundice. In settings with no access to modern devices, we've shown we can use something that's available all around the planet — sunlight — to treat this dangerous condition,” said study author David Stevenson.
Untreated, jaundice is responsible for an estimated 150,000 cases of brain damage or death every year worldwide.
The study results are encouraging news for parents in both developed and undeveloped countries.
In the U.S. and other developed nations, babies are kept or returned to the hospital where they are exposed to lamps that emit blue light. This is an effective treatment for jaundice. But many countries may not have the resources to provide this form of treatment.
Luckily, almost everyone has access to sunlight, and the UCLA research team figured out that if a filter is provided to get rid of the sun's damaging rays — like UVA and UVB — the sun becomes a low-cost and effective treatment for jaundice.
The researchers had half of a group of 450 mothers in Lagos, Nigeria put their babies under specially-designed canopies to filter out the damaging rays and let through the therapeutic blue wavelengths for at least five hours per day (babies were monitored every hour for adverse effects like overheating and dehydration). Even on overcast days, a slightly altered version of the canopy provided enough blue rays to be therapeutic.
The other half of the babies received conventional treatment with a phototherapy lamp.
At the end of the study, there was virtually no difference between the groups. Both those babies put in filtered sunlight and those receiving the hospital-based blue light treatment were successfully treated for their jaundice. In fact, the canopies were found to be effective on 93% of treatment days, while the phototherapy lamps were effective on 90% of the days.
The study results are encouraging news for parents in both developed and undeveloped countries. The authors are currently figuring out how they can apply the results to places with colder and rainier climates — a contraption that provides a sort of greenhouse effect to keep a baby warm might work, they say.
Some doctors in the U.S. already recommend putting newborns with mild jaundice near a window for a few hours a day for a similar effect. That simple method may spare new parents a lot of stress in the first few days of life.
The study is published in The New England Journal of Medicine.