When your baby is born, they come with adorable features like tiny fingers and toes and a lot of love from you. But there’s one thing they don’t have enough of — vitamin K.
This superhero nutrient is important because it helps their blood to clot, like a natural shield against little cuts and bumps. To ensure they have everything they need for a healthy start, newborns are given a little boost of vitamin K with a simple shot.
However, in recent years, some parents have wondered if it’s the right choice for their baby.
With the help of Christina J. Valentine, MD, medical director of the perinatal nutrition program and neonatologist with Banner Children's, we break down what this shot is all about so you can make an informed decision for your little one.
What is vitamin K?
Vitamin K has two big jobs: It helps you stop bleeding when you get hurt and is important for your bone health. It is a fat-soluble vitamin, so your body likes to store it in fat tissue and the liver.
While you can get vitamin K from supplements, getting it from a balanced diet is generally recommended. Eating a mix of foods rich in vitamin K helps keep your body working well.
“There are two kinds of vitamin K: K1, which is found in plant foods like spinach, broccoli and kale; and K2, which is mainly found in some animal products and fermented foods,” said Valentine.
Why do babies need a vitamin K shot?
Newborns are born with low vitamin K levels because they don’t get much from the placenta during pregnancy. This can leave them at higher risk for a bleeding disorder called vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB). Bleeding usually occurs on the skin, brain and intestines.
VKDB usually occurs early in the first week of life or out to 6 months in infants without proper treatment.
“Babies who are only breastfed and don’t get a vitamin K shot right after birth are 81 times more likely to have bleeding in the brain from one week to six months old,” said Valentine. “Infants with this bleeding disorder have a 20% chance of dying.”
What are the signs of vitamin K deficiency bleeding?
When your baby doesn’t have enough vitamin K, you might notice signs like unusual bruising that comes on easily.
Other signs might include:
- Bleeding from the umbilical cord or around the circumcision area
- Gums bleeding during teething
- Blood in the babies’ poop or urine
- Fussiness or irritability
- Trouble sleeping
- Problems feeding
“Some babies are at higher risk for a deficiency than others, such as babies with biliary atresia, cystic fibrosis or those born to pregnant people on anti-seizure or anti-clotting medicines,” said Valentine.
Are vitamin K shots safe?
“Vitamin K shots are absolutely safe,” said Valentine. “The side effects are usually temporary and mild, like redness or swelling in the location where the shot is given.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) all give the vitamin K shot a thumbs up for newborns and preterm infants after birth. Long-term studies show it is safe and not linked to lifelong health risks.
In the early 1990s, a small study claimed an association of risk of childhood cancer or leukemia in babies who had received vitamin K by injection. At the time, this worried parents and health care providers alike.
“Since then, however, researchers and experts have done many different kinds of studies and have never been able to find that link,” said Valentine. “The initial idea was just coincidence, and now we know better based on extensive studies.”
What about oral vitamin K?
Many parents ask about oral vitamin K, but bleeding has happened even with this option.
“Giving babies vitamin K drops may seem easier, but they aren’t potent enough to prevent a deficiency,” said Valentine. “And no oral vitamin K drops are approved in the United States to decrease the risk.”
To give or not to give? How to make the decision
Making choices for your baby can be overwhelming, but being well-informed is important. Informed consent means you have the power to make decisions based on reliable information.
- Talk to your health care provider for accurate and personalized information.
- Trust reputable sources like the AAP, CDC and WHO.
- Use critical thinking: Check evidence and citations.
- Avoid fear-based sources that might cloud your judgment.
Some questions to ask your provider may include:
- Why is the vitamin K shot recommended for newborns?
- What are the potential side effects or risks of the vitamin K shot?
- How soon after birth is the vitamin K shot given?
- Can I delay the vitamin K shot?
Your baby is born with many things, but one thing they lack is vitamin K. The vitamin K shot can give your baby a major boost of protection they need to prevent a bleeding disorder.
Parenting decisions are not always easy, so talk to your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist about any worries you may have. They can help you weigh the benefits and risks.