From the moment a baby is born, they’re on a personal journey towards health and wellbeing, including the need for necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, including vitamin K. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been recommending vitamin K injections in newborns since 1961. In fact, these shots have been largely responsible for the prevention of a very serious (and frequently fatal) condition called vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB). But, why do newborns need a vitamin K shot and how does it contribute to their long-term health?
What is Vitamin K?
Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that activates molecules in the body which stimulate blood clotting, also known as coagulation. This vitamin also plays a role in bone metabolism. Without the ability to form blood clots, any internal or external injuries can result in serious bleeding and could be fatal. It’s important for all parents to know that bleeding can also be spontaneous, meaning it can happen suddenly for no apparent reason.
Older children and adults get vitamin K mostly from leafy greens, but also eggs and dairy products. The healthy bacteria in the intestines also produce a small amount of vitamin K.
Why Do All Babies Need Vitamin K Shots?
When babies are first born, they have very little vitamin K in their bodies. There are two main reasons for this:
- Vitamin K doesn’t pass from the mother’s placenta to the unborn child.
- The intestines of newborn infants aren’t mature enough to produce the needed amount of vitamin K.
All children will normally have enough of this vital nutrient by the time they are about 6 months old, when they begin to ingest solid foods and when their bodies learn to produce vitamin K on their own.
What About Breast Milk? Doesn’t it Provide Enough Vitamin K?
Although breast milk provides a multitude of nutrients that give your baby a wonderful start in life, vitamin K isn’t one of them. This is the case even if the mother takes vitamin K supplements and makes sure she eats foods that have it.
What is Vitamin K Deficiency Bleeding (VKDB)?
VKDB was originally called, ‘hemorrhagic disease of the newborn,‘ or HDN. It came to be known by its current name when researchers discovered the link between vitamin K deficiency and this type of serious bleeding in infants. There are 3 types of VKDB:
- Early onset (birth to 24 hours old).
- Classic onset (2-7 days old).
- Late onset (2-12 weeks, and up to 6 months old).
Early VKDB is mainly found in infants whose mother uses certain medications that interfere with how the body uses vitamin K. At this time, researchers aren’t really sure what conditions are most likely to cause classic vitamin K deficiency. Late VKDB occurs primarily in breastfed babies who haven’t received a vitamin K shot. Even though formula-fed babies receive slightly more vitamin K, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends vitamin K shots to all newborns.
What are the Symptoms of VKDB?
One of the most difficult aspects of VKDB is that symptoms and warning signs can be sudden. This means that serious injury is very common. Here’s a list of some of the signs and symptoms:
- Bloody stool or vomiting blood
- Dark, sticky stool
- Bleeding from the umbilical cord
- The skin is more pale than normal
- For darker-skinned babies, paler gums
- Easily bruised skin, particularly around the face and head
- Excessive sleepiness
IMPORTANT NOTE: Contact an urgent care center or emergency services immediately if you notice any of the above symptoms.
When babies don’t have enough of this essential nutrient, spontaneous bleeding can occur anywhere in the body, including the brain and other important organs. It’s not uncommon for children to also need surgery. Of the infants that get late-onset VKDB, about 50% have intracranial hemorrhage, which tragically can result in permanent brain damage.
Are All Babies at Risk of VKDB?
Because all babies are born with very little vitamin K, they are all at risk of this potentially life-threatening condition. However, certain infants carry a higher risk of VKBD. These include and are not limited to the following:
- Premature babies
- Late preterm infants are born before 37 weeks
- Medically fragile babies
- The use of forceps during the birth process
- Babies born with respiratory or breathing problems
- Newborns whose mothers take medication for seizures
- Babies born with liver problems
VKDB is considered rare in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world where Vitamin K is routinely provided to newborns and infants. However, in parts of the world where babies don’t receive it, VKDB is considered common.
How to Prevent Vitamin K Deficiency Bleeding
The absolute best way to prevent VKDB is to ensure that your newborn baby gets their vitamin K shot within the first hours post-birth. Plan ahead and talk to your pediatrician prior to your child’s birth. This will assure that you have enough time to get clear and accurate information.
Some parents may wish their new babies to receive oral vitamin K, rather than an injection. Generally, healthcare professionals in the United States recommend the post-birth vitamin K injection. This is because the oral administration requires more than one dose and it would be difficult for parents to administer correctly.
Is the Vitamin K Shot Safe for Babies?
The vitamin K shots that are administered to babies have been shown to be very safe as well as effective. The injection consists of only one intramuscular injection into the thigh of the newborn. This single shot will provide enough Vitamin K to protect your baby from VKDB until the body can produce this nutrient on its own. Although nothing is 100%, the side effects are very limited. They may include pain at the injection site or bruising.
Understandably, parents may be concerned about the pain any injections cause their newborns. Rest assured that physicians, nurses, and healthcare professionals provide parents with the opportunity to hold their babies during vitamin K shots and also breastfeed immediately afterwards. This soothes babies almost immediately.
For parents who are worried about the preservatives contained in vitamin K shots and other medications, preservative-free injections are available. If you are interested in preservative-free injections, it’s always a good idea to contact your pediatrician ahead of time, so parents can take time to make informed decisions.
Important Points Regarding Vitamin K
Administration of a vitamin K injection is one of the first of many excellent decisions about their health and wellness you can make for your child. Let’s summarize what we have discussed in this article with these 5 important points:
- The administration of vitamin K is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a safe and very effective early intervention for all newborn infants. Vitamin K shots protect children from a serious and potentially life-threatening disease called Vitamin K Deficiency Bleeding (VKDB). It can result from accidental injuries, or even spontaneously for no apparent reason.
- At birth, newborns don’t have enough vitamin K in their bodies. This changes during the first 6 months of life as intestinal processes start to develop this nutrient on their own, and as parents start feeding their babies solid foods, including eggs, dairy, and leafy greens.
- Even though breastfeeding is an excellent form of nutrition for your newborn, breast milk contains very limited amounts of vitamin K. This is the case even when the mother takes dietary supplements and eats foods loaded with vitamin K.
- Decades of well-conducted research by medical professionals all over the world have confirmed that vitamin K injections are one of the safest and most effective healthcare interventions that you can provide for your child.
Newborn and Infant Care from Metro Pediatrics
The pediatric providers at Metro Pediatrics of Oregon are here to support parents as they make these early and critical healthcare decisions for their newborn infants. We take the time to provide accurate information that is based on the latest scientific evidence, and we’re happy to answer any of your questions. Reach any of our Oregon pediatric clinics by calling 1-833-PDX-KIDS or book a visit. New patients are always welcome.