Most parents understand and expect that their baby will get a vitamin K shot when they are born and before they leave the hospital.
It helps prevent bleeding from vitamin K deficiency.
Vitamin K for Babies
Newborns have been routinely getting vitamin K shots since at least since 1961.
While it was well known that newborns could suffer from hemorrhagic disease of the newborn (the old name for vitamin K deficiency bleeding) since 1894 (thanks to Dr. Charles Townsend), it wasn’t until later that it was connected to a temporary lack of vitamin K in newborns and younger infants. This occurs because:
- vitamin K doesn’t pass through the placenta well, so your baby doesn’t build up a good supply during pregnancy
- breast milk is a poor source of vitamin K, even if the breastfeeding mother eats well and takes supplements, so your baby isn’t able to quickly build up a good supply after she is born
- babies have a mostly sterile gut and are not born with the bacteria in their intestines that can make vitamin K
- some clotting factors need vitamin K to work
Although vitamin K deficiency bleeding was never very common, before newborns began it get vitamin K shots, it did affect from 1.7% (classic onset disease) to 7 in 100,000 newborns (late onset disease).
Since many of these bleeds were fatal, even though they were rare, no one thought that there was a benefit to being low in vitamin K and getting a vitamin K shot wasn’t controversial. At least not until a 1992 paper suggested that vitamin K shots could be associated with childhood cancer. That soon led some parents to refuse their babies vitamin K shots for a short time, at least until the link was refuted.
In 1996, a student called for the ‘End of the Vitamin K Brouhaha:’
“Because hemorrhagic disease of the newborn can be life-threatening but preventable, the studies by von Kries et al and Ansell et al should allay our fears and doubts about the dangers of administering intramuscular vitamin K immediately after birth. It seems that hemorrhagic disease of the newborn can be completely eradicated without the threat of leukemia and childhood cancer as a side effect.”
And the vitamin K brouhaha did seem to end.
The Vitamin K Controversy
It came back though.
In addition to holistic and natural parenting groups, there are some who are against vaccines who are also against vitamin K shots.
This is surprising to many people, as those who oppose giving babies vitamin K are often the same folks who push many other types of vitamins, including megadoses of vitamin C, vitamin B12 shots, and extra vitamin D.
Vitamin K Misinformation
So why do some parents skip giving their new baby a vitamin K shot?
It is possible that in doing their research, they have been mislead by some of the misinformation about vitamin K that you commonly find on the internet.
This includes claims that:
- there is mercury and other toxic ingredients in the vitamin K shots (the truth is that neither mercury or thimerosal nor any other heavy metals are used as a preservative in vitamin K shots and all of the other ingredients are safe too)
- vitamin K shots cause cancer (the truth is that they don’t and an early study that suggested they did was later refuted many times)
- babies don’t need extra vitamin K (the truth is that some do though and it is typically impossible to identify them, except maybe for babies born to mothers taking certain medications, mostly seizure medicines, that put them at extra risk of early vitamin K deficiency bleeding)
- babies start making enough vitamin K when they are 8 days old (the truth is that some babies don’t, especially those with liver disease and other disorders that might interfere with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins)
- babies did fine before we started giving them vitamin K shots (the truth is that some died, which is why we started giving vitamin K in the first place)
- you can just give babies oral vitamin K instead of a vitamin K shot (the truth is that oral vitamin K doesn’t work to prevent all cases of late onset vitamin K deficiency, which is also deadly)
- only boys who get a circumcision need vitamin K (the truth is that we don’t know why some infants with vitamin K deficiency bleeding develop bleeding in their brains, as it isn’t usually any kind of big trauma, so it doesn’t have to be something like a circumcision or a fall or whether you delivered vaginally or by C-section, etc. In fact, late onset bleeding can occur up to 12 weeks, and sometimes as long as 6 months, after a baby is born!)
- there must be a benefit to having low vitamin K levels when we are born, otherwise God wouldn’t have made us this way (even if this were somehow true, it doesn’t negate the fact that some babies die from their low vitamin K levels…)
Just as with vaccine preventable diseases, since vitamin K deficiency is now rare (because most parents make sure their babies get a vitamin K shot), it is easy for parents to be misled by this type of misinformation.
Bad Advice about Vitamin K
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, vitamin K deficiency bleeding “is most effectively prevented by parenteral administration of vitamin K.”
That’s the vitamin K shot.
While early (birth to 2 weeks) vitamin K deficiency bleeding can be prevented with either oral vitamin K or a vitamin K shot, late onset (2 to 12 weeks, but sometimes as late as 6 months) vitamin K deficiency bleeding is best prevented with a vitamin K shot.
Some people didn’t get the message though, advising parents to skip the vitamin K shot against all standard medical advice:
- Dr. Mercola still warns parents about the ‘jab with a syringe full of vitamin K.’
- Sarah Pope at the Health Home Economist tells parents to ‘Skip that Newborn Vitamin K Shot’
- 28 percent of parents who delivered at local private birthing centers in Tennessee had recently declined the vitamin K shot
So what are the consequences of this kind of non-standard, non-evidence based advice?
They are much as you would expect when dealing with a potentially life-threatening condition – a rise in vitamin K deficiency bleeding in newborns and infants.
Among the recent cases of early and late vitamin K deficiency bleeding include:
- seven babies over eight months in 2013 at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, including three who required surgery to remove clots “out of their head” and who may “have issues with seizure disorders and will have long-term neurological symptoms related to seizures and developmental delays.”
- a 5-week-old in Florida with late onset vitamin K dependent bleeding. The youngest of 6 children, none of whom had been given vitamin K, the baby had a seizure and stopped breathing after developing two brain hemorrhages.
- a 3-week-old in Indiana with late onset vitamin K dependent bleeding who was born in a birthing center and whose “parents signed a waiver to forego vaccination and prophylactic therapies,” and required an emergency craniotomy to evacuate braining bleeding, prolonged intubation, and difficult to control seizures
- a 6-week-old in Illinois with late onset vitamin K dependent bleeding who never received vitamin K prophylaxis at birth and developed brain bleeding and swelling, seizures, a DVT, and who was hospitalized for 10 days
- a 6-week-old in South Texas with late onset vitamin K dependent bleeding who never received vitamin K prophylaxis at birth and died after developing brain bleeding and seizures
- an infant in Australia who had not been given a vitamin K shot as per her mother’s birth plan and died of late vitamin K deficiency bleeding (at 33 days of life)
- another infant in Australia who is in critical condition after his parents refused a vitamin K shot
- infants in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands who have suffered from vitamin K deficiency bleeding while receiving oral vitamin K, often because their parents refused a vitamin K shot
Tragically, most parents who refuse vitamin K shots also refuse other potentially life-saving medical interventions, including getting a hepatitis B vaccine and even getting erythromycin eye ointment. And many go on to refuse all childhood vaccines.
On the bright side, the great majority of parents do allow their newborn babies to receive vitamin K when they are born. One study found that only 0.3% of parents refused vitamin K.
What To Know About Vitamin K Shots for Babies
The bottom line is that vitamin K shots are a safe way to prevent vitamin K deficiency bleeding. This is no good reason to skip this shot for your baby.
More Information About Vitamin K Shots for Babies
- 7 Vitamin K Myths Busted
- CDC – Facts about Vitamin K Deficiency Bleeding
- CDC – Vitamin K Shot – Essential in Preventing Serious Bleeding in Newborns
- Are the Ingredients in the Newborn Vitamin K Shot Safe?
- Vitamin K Refusal – The New Anti-Vax
- Separating Fact From Fiction in the Not-So-Normal Newborn Nursery: Vitamin K Shots
- Evidence for the Vitamin K Shot in Newborns
- The terrifying result of refusing newborn Vitamin K
- Cochrane Report – Prophylactic vitamin K for vitamin K deficiency bleeding in neonates
- AAP – Where We Stand: Administration of Vitamin K
- Study – Neonatal Vitamin K Refusal and Nonimmunization
- What parents should know about newborn tests and vaccinations
Last Updated on January 14, 2019 by Vincent Iannelli, MD