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Know-how: Vitamin K at Birth

Many hospitals advise giving a vitamin K injection at birth, we explain why this is, and how it's given

Posted: 5 May 2009
by Sarah Lawson

Vitamin K is responsible for making proteins that an essential part of the blood clotting process. Vitamin K also helps wounds to heal properly. It is found in leafy green vegetables, vegetable oils and cereals, whilst small amounts can also be found in dairy products. Some bacteria in our intestines also produce it naturally, so adults are very rarely lacking in it.

Why might my new baby need a vitamin K boost?
Babies have low levels of vitamin K at birth because their intestines do not yet produce it. Also, although some vitamin K eaten by you during pregnancy will be transferred to the baby in your womb, it is not stored at very high levels.
Babies born with a very low level of vitamin K are at risk of a rare disorder called vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB). It only occurs in only about one in every 10,000 babies but can be extremely harmful. It can lead to bleeding in the nose, the mouth and into the brain and if it goes undetected it can cause brain damage or even be fatal.
Because of this, Vitamin K is offered to all new babies.

Are all babies at risk?
Yes, although some babies are more at risk than others. These include babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks), babies whose mothers took certain drugs during pregnancy (such as drugs treating epilepsy or to prevent blood clots), or those who had a complicated delivery where there may have been some bruising for your baby. Also those babies where there are liver problems, or those who had breathing problems at birth.

How can babies be protected
In order to minimise the risk of VKDB, it is common policy in hospitals in this country for babies to be given an injection of vitamin K within an hour of the birth.
The injection is optional and you can choose not to have it given to your baby, or you can opt for the vitamin K to be given orally in three doses instead of the single vaccine. (Many years ago there was a concern raised that the injection could increase the chances of childhood leukaemia but that has never been proved.)
Most parents are happy for it to be given – quickly and painlessly – at birth, but if you do opt for the oral doses and you give your baby formula milk he will only need two doses rather than three. (If you feed with formula and the injection is give there is no need to inform the hospital as it won't affect the dosage.)

How should we decide if our baby needs this injection?
In you have any concerns you can discuss these with your midwife before the birth (most hospitals will also give you a leaflet all about how your health authority usually administers the medication). Vitamin K is definitely advised for those babies who are likely to be in the high risk groups, but as many as a third of VKDB cases will occur unexpectedly in those babies not thought to be at risk and, given that a baby is born in such a physically demanding way, it is advisable to opt for the injection if you feel happy to do so, whether or not your baby is 'high risk'.

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