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Jaundice is a high level of bilirubin in the blood (bilirubin is a byproduct of the natural breakdown of blood cells, and the liver usually "recycles" it back into the body). Although mild jaundice is common in full-term babies, it's much more common in premature babies. Bilirubin comes in two types, direct and indirect. Indirect bilirubin is the most common type seen in preterm infants, but doctors will measure both types. Only the indirect type is treated with lights.
Indirect bilirubin jaundice happens when a baby has increased blood cell breakdown and the liver can't handle the extra bilirubin. The bilirubin builds up, giving the skin and the whites of the eyes a yellowish color. Babies with jaundice are sometimes more sleepy than usual and, in severe cases, may be lethargic.
Although yellow skin is a reliable sign, a diagnosis is made with a blood test to measure the bilirubin level.
Extremely high levels of bilirubin can cause brain damage, so infants are monitored for jaundice and treated quickly, before bilirubin reaches dangerous levels. Standard treatment includes providing plenty of fluids and light therapy (when a baby spends time under a special blue-colored light). Some cases may require a blood transfusion.
Babies stay in the NICU until their bilirubin level drops, usually in about 2 to 3 days.