Vitamin K Shots for Newborns: Why Skipping Them Might Be a Very Bad Idea

When babies are born in hospitals across the country, it's standard operating procedure for doctors to give them a shot of vitamin K to protect them from bleeding issues. But more and more moms are saying no to the vitamin K injection and it's opened up an alarming problem in hospitals: dangerous -- even fatal -- hemorrhages in infants.

Doctors at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, noticed a spike in hemorrhages last year with five babies in just eight months suffering from what's known as Vitamin K Deficiency Bleeding (VKDB). Doctors determined the cause of bleeding and noticed all the babies had something in common: their parents declined the vitamin K shot at birth.

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They alerted the CDC of their findings, and, as a result, a case-control study is under way to assess whether any additional risk factors may contribute to VKDB in babies who do not receive vitamin K at birth. Since making the connection, which was featured in Pediatric Neurology, Vanderbilt has been actively spreading the word about vitamin K.

"While vitamin K deficiency bleeding remains rare, it only happens to babies who did not get their vitamin K shot ... and it can cause hemorrhaging or death," says Dr. Anne Morad, director of the Newborn Nursery at Monroe Carell JR. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. "It's devastating for the families who are impacted."

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), babies who are not given the vitamin K shot are 81 times more likely to suffer from Vitamin K Deficiency Bleeding. The shots are typically given at birth because all babies are born with low vitamin K levels.

Saying no to the shot has become common, Morad says, in part because of a myth that the shot is a vaccination or they're concerned about preservatives in injections. But it is not a vaccine; it is an injectable vitamin. And there are many brands of vitamin K that are preservative-free.

"This shot is one of the safest things we give," says Morad. "We're working with our midwives to increase our community outreach efforts. We need to ensure families understand the importance of vitamin K."

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Some families ask for oral vitamin K instead of the shot, possibly because they don't want baby to be "hurt" by a needle. But while Morad says it's better than nothing, she discourages parents from going that route. "There's no FDA approved oral version of vitamin K, and it can be difficult to accurately give repeated doses of oral medication to an infant," said Morad. "Oral vitamin K requires multiple doses over the first months of life."

Babies are at highest risk for VKDB during the first 6 months of life. The risk drops when they start eating regular foods and their intestinal bacteria starts making vitamin K. The risk is also higher in babies who are exclusively breastfed, as formula is typically supplemented with vitamin K.

More from The Stir: Vitamin K Shots for Newborns: Everything You Need to Know

If you refused the vitamin K shot for your baby at birth, there are some warning signs of a critical deficiency. Some babies will have "warning bleeds" with unexplained bruising or bleeding from their nose or rectum. If your baby experiences these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

If you're rethinking your decision about the shot, there is still time -- vitamin K can be given after your baby is born.

The good news: most babies will do just fine ... even without the shot. However, some babies will spontaneously bleed and doctors don't have the ability to predict which ones. For that reason, Morad encourages parents to thoughtfully consider vitamin K -- which has been administered in delivery rooms since the 1960s -- before they make a decision that could put their child at risk for hemorrhaging. 

Did you consent to the vitamin K shot when your baby was born? Why or why not?


Image © AMELIE-BENOIST/BSIP/BSIP/Corbis

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