Expectant parents spend months preparing for the arrival of their new bundle of joy. Classes are taken, books are read, nurseries are decorated and pediatricians are consulted. With all the planning and excitement of labor, parents may not realize that in the minutes following birth a newborn is examined, screened and given all the right care to ensure a happy and healthy immediate future. One routine practice in these early minutes after birth is the administration of vitamin K.
Vitamin K is essential to help newborns’ blood to clot normally, and it is given as a shot within minutes to hours of birth to make sure a newborn has enough vitamin K to prevent any silent internal bleeding. Vitamin K is not sufficiently passed on by mothers, and very little is present in breast milk, so the single shot at birth protects an infant until they begin producing and consuming vitamin K on their own.
During my twelve years as an emergency department physician, I only recall seeing two cases of vitamin K-deficient bleeding (VKDB) in our hospital, but both of those cases have been within the last year. Despite vitamin K being given as standard medical practice since the early 1960s, VKDB is being seen more often in newborns than it has in decades, mostly as a result of the increasing refusal of vaccines. It is important that parents know that the vitamin K shot is NOT a vaccine. The shot is an injection of a vitamin and it has no immune properties. The vitamin K shot is given purely to replace a critically important deficient vitamin, and is most effective and long lasting when given as an injection rather than given orally.
When parents request that no shots be given to their child at birth because they are opposed to vaccines, vitamin K shot may get accidentally lumped into that category. However, babies who don’t get vitamin K can develop internal bleeding, often into their brains, which could result in seizures, coma or even death. Early symptoms of VKDB are very vague, which makes it difficult for parents and even physicians to identify it quickly. VKDB is preventable, and a single injection of vitamin K at birth restores vitamin K levels in the blood to a normal range within an about an hour and protects infants until they are able to consume or produce vitamin K on their own.
I strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their children and make sure they are following the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to give newborns vitamin K. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your obstetrician or at a prenatal appointment with your pediatrician about any questions or concerns you may have about vitamin K or any other shots or immunizations that your child may need.
Karyn L. Kassis, MD, MPH is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She began her appointment at Nationwide Children’s in 2009 and has been published in Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care in the past.
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