The light-up pyjamas changing the way babies are treated for jaundice

A baby receives phototherapy in an incubator.
A baby receives phototherapy in an incubator.  Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists have designed a pair of "phototherapeutic" pyjamas that could change the way doctors treat jaundice in newborns, taking bubs out of the incubator and allowing them to recover in their parents' arms.

A Swiss team from the laboratory of Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles at Empa published their work on the light-up pjs in the journal Biometric and Optics Expressnoting that it's a more child-friendly treatment of jaundice than the most commonly used phototherapy.

Jaundice, the yellow colour seen in newborns, affects around 60 per cent of full-term babies and up to 80 per cent of premature babies. It is caused by the normal breakdown of red blood cells, during which a chemical called bilirubin is released, which then causes the skin and whites of the eyes, to turn yellow. While most babies have mild jaundice which is harmless and does not require treatment, high levels of bilirubin can cause brain damage. Phototherapy is used to eliminate bilirubin in babies' blood and prevent long-term effects.

These light up pyjamas could change the way doctors treat jaundice in babies.
These light up pyjamas could change the way doctors treat jaundice in babies. Photo: Empa

"Phototherapy is usually performed in incubators," the authors write of the current treatment approach to jaundice, adding that this requires bub to lie undressed with eye protection for long periods of time underneath a lamp. "Not only does this remove the warming clothing layer ... but it also prevents body contact from its mother."

And while other products including blankets have been developed in recent years, the authors argue, "all of these require additional covers of skin-friendly fabric to protect the neonate's skin. Additionally, these structures are still mostly rigid with low water vapour diffusion, leading to decreased sensorial and thermal physiological comfort of the patient." (In other words, they're not particularly comfortable.)

To address this issue, the research team created materials with "optically conductive" fibres woven into them. "Battery-operated LEDs serve as a light source for the light-conducting threads," they note, explaining that along with conventional thread, the optical fibres are woven into a satin material that distributes the light supply evenly throughout the fabric.

Where polymer optical fibers are woven into the fabric and connected to LEDs, the fabric shines at a therapeutic wavelength.

Where polymer optical fibers are woven into the fabric and connected to LEDs, the fabric shines at a therapeutic wavelength. Photo: Empa

But that's not even the best part. The material can be made into a onesie or a sleeping bag, the team explains, meaning bub is clothed and can be held and fed while being treated.

"And because the pyjamas can be produced for commercial use so they only radiate light inward, onto the baby's skin, it is no longer necessary for the newborn to wear an annoying protective mask," the researchers note in a statement. "Unlike in the incubator, where the treatment light shines on the infant's face, the shortwave radiation of the light pyjamas doesn't reach the baby's sensitive eyes."

Lead author Maike Quandt said the fabrics are also designed for everyday wear. "The photonic textiles are washable and tolerated well by the skin," he said, adding that the satin material is as comfortable as a typical onesie.

The team believes their work has important implications. "For the treatment of neonatal jaundice, the novelty of this research is the possibility of removing the incubator, making the treatment more flexible," they write.