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The Potential Dark Side of the Routine Newborn Vitamin K Shot

March 27, 2010 | 405,357 views
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By Dr. Mercola

It has been standard practice in the US and most western countries since 1944 to welcome babies into the world by subjecting them to a variety of medical interventions, one of which is a jab with a syringe full of vitamin K.

This injection is routinely done to almost all newborns, unless you, as a parent, refuse to consent.

Birth is an overwhelming sensory experience for your baby. He has never before experienced sensations of cold or hunger, been blinded by artificial lights, or felt the touch of human hands or metal instruments, paper or cloth. Even gravity is a foreign sensation.

A needle stick can be a terrible assault to a baby's suddenly overloaded sensory system, which is trying to adjust to the outside world. 

Vitamin K is Necessary for Your Newborn 

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the foremost expert in the world on vitamin K, Dr. Cees Vermeer, PhD, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Maastricht (in The Netherlands). I am thrilled to be able to share with you some of the latest information about vitamin K that he shared with me.

While this injection itself may be inappropriate for reasons I will cover in detail, vitamin K is absolutely necessary for your newborn. However, there are safer and non-invasive ways to normalize your baby’s vitamin K levels that don’t require a potentially damaging injection.

Why Is This Shot Given in the First Place?

Vitamin K is necessary for normal blood clotting in adults and children. Some babies (in fact, most of them) are born with insufficient vitamin K levels.

In some newborns, this deficiency can lead to a serious bleeding disorder, typically in the first week of life, called Hemorrhagic Disease of the Newborn (HDN). Internal bleeding occurs in the brain and other organs, leading to serious injury or potentially even death.

While this disease is rare (incidence of 0.25 percent to 1.7 percent),i it is has been standard practice to give injections of vitamin K as a preventative measure to all infants, whether or not risk factors are present.

Your newborn can be at increased risk for HDN if any of the following are present:

  • Preterm delivery
  • Low birth weight
  • A forceps or vacuum extraction delivery
  • Mother’s use of antibiotics, anticoagulants, anticonvulsants, and some other medications during pregnancy
  • Undetected liver disease
  • Extremely fast, or extremely prolonged labor, particularly during the pushing phase
  • Delivery by C-section

Unfortunately, the current standard of care regarding Hemorrhagic Disease of the Newborn and vitamin K was put into practice without adequate research to determine what was best for newborns. These shotgun approaches were certainly convenient for the physicians but lacked any sort of consideration of potential side effects for the baby.

Increased rates of circumcision immediately after birth, before infants can develop their vitamin K levels naturally, has contributed to making vitamin K injections routine, to lower the risk for increased bleeding from these early circumcisions.

As pointed out by one Mercola reader, it is interesting to note that a newborn’s natural prothrombin levels reach normal levels between days 5 and 7, peaking around the eighth day of life, related to the buildup of bacteria in baby’s digestive tract to produce the vitamin K that is necessary to form this clotting factor. Day 8 is said to be the only time in a baby’s life when his prothrombin level will naturally exceed 100 percent of normal.

As it turns out, Genesis 17:12 of the Bible mandates the circumcision of infant boys on the eighth day after birth—a recommendation pronounced long before we had the science to back it up. 

I will leave any conclusions to you about the significance of this anecdote, but it is nevertheless interesting.

As far as I know, only one state has a law mandating vitamin K injections—New York State,ii which is notorious for restricting and preventing exemptions to vaccinations and other mandated medical treatments for children.

However, you can find specific instructions about how to opt out of injection (and obtain oral vitamin K for your newborn), for New Yorkers and residents of other states, at Vaccine Liberation Organization, which has a page specific to New Yorkersiii who wish to avoid the Hepatitis B shot, vitamin K injections, or the application of silver nitrate into your newborn’s eyes. 

The Dangers of the Shot They Don’t Warn You About

There are three primary areas of risk associated with these injections:

  1. Among the most significant is inflicting pain immediately after birth which has the potential to cause psycho-emotional damage and trauma to a newborn.   
  2. The amount of vitamin K injected into newborns is 20,000 times the needed doseiv . Additionally, the injection may also contain preservatives that can be toxic for your baby’s delicate, young immune system.
  3. An injection creates an additional opportunity for infection in an environment that contains some of the most dangerous germs, at a time when your baby’s immune system is still immature.

It is, however, also important to correct the record about one myth that has been propagated for years about the dangers of vitamin K injections in newborns.

It was suggested some years ago that vitamin K injections were associated with cancer and leukemia. However, that conclusion was in error. There is NO known association between the two.

As mentioned above, these injections may not be the best method of delivery for the necessary vitamin K  -- but the increased risk for cancer is not a legitimate concern.

Although premature clamping of the umbilical cord should be avoided as it can result in potential brain damage, there is insufficient evidence to say that this can lead to lower vitamin K levels in newborns, although you will occasionally see this claim made.

Inflicting Pain Just After Birth May Have Long-Term Effects on Your Newborn

For more than a century, many physicians have maintained a denial of infant pain, based on ancient prejudices and "scientific evidence" that was long ago disproven. Many have made claims that newborns don’t feel pain, or remember it, the way adults do.

In fact, not only do infants feel pain, but the earlier they experience it, the more damaging and longer lasting the psychological effects may be.

Dr. David B. Chamberlain, psychologist and co-founder of the Association of Pre-and Perinatal Psychology and Health, wrote in his article “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine”:v

"The earlier an infant is subjected to pain, the greater the potential for harm.

Early pains include being born prematurely into a man-made 'womb,' being born full-term in a man-made delivery room, being subject to any surgery (major or minor), and being circumcised.

We must alert the medical community to the psychological hazards of early pain and call for the removal of all man-made pain surrounding birth.”

Back in 1999, Science Daily published an articlevi about the findings of a research team at the Washington School of Medicine that newborns who are exposed to a series of painful treatments display a variety of long-term effects as older children, including an altered response to pain and an exaggerated stress response.

A 2004 studyvii found that very early pain or stress experiences have long-lasting adverse consequences for newborns, including changes in the central nervous system and changes in responsiveness of the neuroendocrine and immune systems at maturity.

Similarly, a 2008 study of analgesia in newborns and childrenviii concluded:

“Healthy newborns routinely experience acute pain during blood sampling for metabolic screening, injection of vitamin K or hepatitis vaccine, or circumcision.

Acute pain caused by skin-breaking procedures can lead to physiologic instability and behavioral distress, and it has downstream effects on subsequent pain processing, development and stress responsivity.

Because of these detrimental effects, reduction and prevention of pain are worthy clinical goals that are also expected by most parents.”

In addition to the above, the possible trauma from the injection can also jeopardize the establishment of breastfeeding, which is detrimental to both mother and baby.

ORAL Vitamin K Is a Safe & Effective Method to Deliver Necessary Vitamin K

The alternative to vitamin K injections is amazingly simple: give the vitamin ORALLY. It is safe and equally effective, and devoid of any troubling side effects.

Oral vitamin K is absorbed less efficiently than vitamin K that is injected. However, this can easily be compensated for by adjusting the dose. And since vitamin K is non-toxic, there is no danger of overdosing or a bad reaction.

If you are breastfeeding, which I hope you are, your baby can be given several low oral doses of liquid vitamin K1 and receive the same protection from Hemorrhagic Disease of the Newborn as he would receive from an injection.

Ultimately, you should consult your pediatrician about the dose that is appropriate for your baby.

The Cochrane Collaboration has determined the following dosing schedule, which results in very similar rates of protection from HDN:ix

  • 1 milligram liquid vitamin K weekly, OR
  • 0.25 milligram liquid vitamin K daily

In the future, research is needed to better pinpoint guidelines about the oral vitamin K dosing for newborns. However, remember that there have been no adverse effects observed in adults or babies who receive vitamin K doses much higher than what is actually required. And the dose given orally will be far less than the megadose given by injection.

So for now, there is no danger in overshooting the mark somewhat to make sure your baby is adequately protected until precise dosing guidelines are made available by science.

You can also increase your infant’s vitamin K levels naturally if you are breastfeeding by increasing your own vitamin K levels.

The milk of lactating women has been tested, and most milk is low in vitamin K because the women themselves are vitamin K deficient. If women take vitamin K supplements, then their milk becomes much richer in vitamin K, as you would expect.

According to Dr. Vermeer, mothers who are adequately supplementing themselves with vitamin K and are breastfeeding may not need to give their infants additional K supplements.

But you must be cautious here that your vitamin K levels are optimal, and for most women, the vitamin K absorbed from foods is typically insufficient, so a supplement is likely needed.

What You Need to Do BEFORE Your Baby Is Born

Ultimately, the choice about whether or not to consent for your baby to be given a vitamin K shot is yours. At least now you have the information with which you can make an informed decision.

How do you want your baby’s first few moments of life to be?

There are plenty of unavoidable pains that you can’t prevent, no matter how much you might want to shield your child from all pain and suffering. Why not eliminate one source of pain that is absolutely unnecessary and under your control?

If you choose to not expose your child to vitamin K1 as a shot and would prefer to have it given orally, you will have to make it VERY clear to not only your OB physician but also ALL the nursing staff, as they would be the ones that actually administer the shot.

During the excitement of the delivery it will be very difficult to remember that your baby was not supposed to have the shot. So it would also be helpful to have someone like your spouse at the delivery reminding them that your child should NOT get the shot.

Please note that is the same strategy I would suggest using if you reach the same conclusion as I did about hepatitis B vaccines given to newborns. 

But remember you must be proactive. Typically the nursing staff will not ask for your permission to give this vaccine or vitamin K shot as they are standard practice so they don’t need your permission. So you have to be diligent in your request.

It is so worth it though to take the extra steps to protect your newborn. I would strongly encourage you to make the additional effort.

Sources and References:

  • [i] Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics Vitamin K Ad Hoc Task Force, May 1993, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/91/5/1001
  • [ii]New York State Requirements for Vitamin K & Eye Drops at Birth, March 2007, http://ffitz.com/nyvic/law/vitamin-k.htm
  • [iii]New York State, VacLib.org & VaccineTruth.net Exemption Page http://www.vaclib.org/exempt/newyork.htm#newborn
  • [iv]Giving Birth Naturally, Newborn Vitamin K Injections, http://www.givingbirthnaturally.com/newborn-vitamin-k.html
  • [v]David B. Chamberlain, PhD, Babies Don't Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine, http://www.terrylarimore.com/BabiesAndPain.html
  • [vi]Science Daily, August 1999, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/08/990816065623.htm
  • [vii]Journal of Perinatal Education, 2004, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1595204/
  • [viii]Canadian Medical Association Journal, July 2008, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.ozgov/pmc/articles/PMC2464482/
  • [ix]Ronnie Falcao, Vitamin K injection or oral administration, http://www.gentlebirth.org/archives/vitKvgf.html