What’s the deal with Vitamin K shots and eye drops for the newborn? I’ve heard they are both controversial procedures. Why are they done? And is there a way to avoid them? – shot in the darkDear In the Dark,
Vitamin K shots have been given to newborn babies in the U.S. since the 1960s. About one in 10,000 babies has a vitamin K deficiency, which can prevent blood clotting and cause major problems in the rare newborn it affects. The shots are generally considered harmless, although there’s some controversy about a link between Vitamin K and an increased risk of childhood leukemia. No studies have found a conclusive connection. The Vitamin K shot is recommended by the AAP and is standard newborn procedure in hospitals. In some states, the shot is mandated by law. You can refuse the shot, but can be a real hassle even when it’s not a state law – you might be given a pretty hard time about it. If you hate the idea of an injection, talk to your caregiver in advance about the option of an oral dose. Some studies have shown that supplementing the mother in advance with Vitamin K can also suffice. But you’ll probably need an open-minded caregiver to sidestep the shot in either case.
Babies are also routinely given antibiotic eye drops or ointment after birth. This is a public health measure to prevent babies from getting serious eye infections from gonorrhea/chlamydia bacteria. Pregnant women are tested for these diseases during pregnancy, but the measure is still taken as “anything could happen” between the time of the test and the birth. The suggestion that either the pregnant woman or her partner have been dabbling in unprotected sex can be offensive and upsetting. But the hospital is much more interested in protecting babies than feelings. Antibiotic ointment is often required by state law, so avoiding it all together is very difficult. In fact, Child Protective Services may be called if you refuse.
Though they don’t appear to irritate the baby, the drops do blur a baby’s vision. This can be a bummer, as they’re given during the period immediately following birth when newborns are otherwise alert and able to connect with parents. If you want, you can ask nurses to postpone the drops until you have had a few minutes to look into each other’s eyes. Depending on how cooperative your nurse is, you may get a little time.
These two procedures may be overly cautious – done for all to protect the very, very few – but neither have been proven dangerous. An argument could be made for rolling with hospital policy, if only to keep your blood pressure down at a time when you’ll be dealing with enough stress. If you want to avoid routine post-natal medication, first talk to your obstetrician or midwife well before the birth (before thirty-five weeks) about whether you have a choice in the matter, and if so, what he or she recommends for you. If you feel really strongly about this issue, you could consider a home birth where you’d have more say in the matter. Otherwise, you can find safety (or solace?) in numbers: the overwhelming majority of babies are given both treatments, and are apparently none the worse for it.