How a Sleep Sack May Improve Treating Newborns With Jaundice

Close-up of Sleep Sack

A new sleep sack being developed at University Hospitals could change how hospitals treat newborns with jaundice.

Katherine Griswold, MD, and others at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital are working with a medical device company to develop a phototherapy sleep sack that wraps the infant in fiber optic blue light. The sleep sack decreases the infant’s jaundice-causing bile while allowing the infant to be swaddled, held and fed during treatment and may eliminate the need for eye protection. The sleep sack has the potential to increase parental compliance with the prescribed treatment and decrease stress levels for baby and mom.

What is Jaundice?

Newborn jaundice (hyperbilirubinemia) is a common condition in newborns. Jaundice makes the skin and eyes appear yellowish, which is caused by an excess of bile in the blood.

Jaundice happens when the infant’s immature liver cannot effectively metabolize and excrete the bile through the urine. Jaundice typically appears between the second and fifth days of life and, in some cases, will go away completely without treatment after a short time. For some babies with severe jaundice, phototherapy treatment might be required.

Phototherapy is the process of using overhead lights or fiber-optic pads to expose the baby to certain light wavelengths, which eliminates bile in the blood. Although phototherapy is the current standard of care for treating newborn jaundice, it has its drawbacks for baby and mom.

Drawbacks of Phototherapy

During treatment, the infant must wear eye protection and lie naked under the lights or on the pad. Most infants like to be swaddled, so this experience can be unsettling and lead to crying and fussiness. The babies cannot be held during treatment, so parents can become frustrated or anxious since their natural instinct is to hold, cuddle and soothe their baby.

“We thought, if we could get the light into the sleep sack and wrap it around the baby, wouldn’t that be great? The baby would be happier and the mom would be happier," Dr. Griswold says.

And, because the baby can be held and fed while inside the phototherapy sleep sack, the opportunity for parent-infant bonding is increased without decreasing the treatment's duration and effectiveness.

At UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, Dr. Griswold is conducting a pilot study of 10 newborns to test whether the assumptions behind the new sleep sack design hold true.

"In the future, we hope to further compare the phototherapy sleep sack with standard phototherapy and evaluate whether increased parental compliance with treatment decreases hospital length of stay,” Dr. Griswold says.

Once the results of the pilot study are in, families may even be able to use the phototherapy sleep sack to treat their infant at home.

“A pediatrician may be able to prescribe it as a piece of durable medical equipment that will be returned,” Dr. Griswold says. “If the device works and our patients are happier with it, it’s a home run.”

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