Parents Refusing Newborn Eye Ointment: Is It Safe?


Once your baby is born, bonding may be at the top of your priority list, but medical staff on the maternity ward tend to be eager to perform an array of procedures in an effort to safeguard your newborn's health. One of these is to rub an antiobiotic ointment on their eyes called erythromycin. It's considered a standard procedure, but there's been a recent spike of parents refusing erythromycin, which may have you wondering what this eye goo really is -- and whether you should pass on it, too.


According to Peter Ahlering, MD, an OB/GYN in Chesterfield, Misourri at MCRM Fertility, that erythromycin, also called E-Mycin, is "used to treat eye infections caused by bacteria found in the birth canal of some women." 

The birth canal "bacteria" he's talking about are chlamydia and gonorrhea, which can get transmitted to a baby's eyes as he passes through on his way out.

But if you don't have these STDs, why do you need your baby treated for them?

Well, according to Bridget Boyd, MD, director of the newborn nursery at Loyola University Health System, the routine screenings for STDs that moms get during pregnancy might pick up on a problem. Then again, even if these tests came back negative during your pregnancy, there is, of course, a chance you might catch these STDs later on if you or your partner have unprotected sex with someone else.

While no one wants to think about a cheating partner during pregnancy, the experts say it's better to safe than sorry. "Even if you're sure you don't have these STDs, the ointment is still recommended," says Dr. Boyd. 

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The reason for many experts' "no exceptions" stance: a chlamydia or gonorrhea infection can slowly damage a baby's eyes and, left unchecked over the years, can eventually lead to blindness. This may explain why various organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all newborns get the goo -- no exceptions.

Nonetheless, some parents refuse erythromycin due to fears of an allergic reaction or chemical conjunctivitis (otherwise known as pinkeye). "This could occur, but these reactions are extremely rare," says Dr. Boyd. Other parents who refuse may merely think it's unnecessary.

Still, if you do pass, there could be pushback.

"Parents do have the right of informed consent and informed refusal with regards to any treatment, medication and procedure their baby might receive," says Deena Blumenfeld, childbirth educator at Shining Light Prenatal Education. "So, you can say 'no' if you wish. More often than not, if you refuse, the doctor will have a long conversation with you and that is that. However, laws vary by locality and, although it's unlikely, staff can call Child Protective Services, which will be required to investigate."

Bottom line: By most expert accounts, the benefits of erythromycin far outweigh the risks, and refusing this treatment can cause hassles as well as putting your baby at risk for serious complications. So if you've got questions about this procedure or any other that's routinely given shortly after birth, be sure to discuss them with your doctor long before you go into labor to avoid any rash last-minute decisions, alright? 

Are there any medical procedures for babies that you're curious to know more about?


Image via Andresr/shutterstock

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