To Your Health

Why was my newborn given a vitamin K shot before we left the hospital?

Q. Why was my newborn given a vitamin K shot before I left the hospital? Is this safe, since vitamin K increases blood clotting? I try to minimize the number of injections given to my children.

A. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin, but unlike other fat-soluble vitamins very little is stored in the body. As adults we depend on our friendly intestinal bacteria to produce most of the vitamin K we need. Newborn babies are especially vulnerable to deficiency of vitamin K because mother's milk tends to be low in vitamin K. Also, it takes a few days before newborns develop their own colony of friendly intestinal bacteria from which to obtain vitamin K. Most hospitals now have a policy of giving newborns an injection of vitamin K to prevent vitamin K deficiency bleeding, which in rare instances can be fatal.

Vitamin K is known to take part in three body functions: blood clotting, bone mineralization, and cell growth. Blood clotting was the first function to be discovered and is the best understood. Vitamin K is required for seven of the 12 factors involved in the elegant cascade of events that produces a blood clot. Without the ability of blood to clot when necessary, we would bleed to death from even the most minor injury.

The amount of vitamin K that would produce dangerous blood clots is probably 100 times the amount given to your newborn. However, it is not the risk of blood clots from vitamin K injections that worries some researchers, but the risk of leukemia. Beginning in the 1970s studies have been published that hinted at such a connection, but all the studies have been inconclusive. Even today the possibility of a connection cannot be ruled out entirely, but some researchers who in the 1990s were most concerned now say that their research provides "no convincing evidence" that vitamin K injections are associated with childhood leukemia.

While there is no doubt that vitamin K injections reduce the risk of Hemorrhagic Disease of the Newborn, this does not really prove that HDN is caused by vitamin K deficiency, any more than the fact that antibiotic therapy cures an infection proves that infections are caused by antibiotic deficiency. The liver makes the seven clotting factors mentioned above using vitamin K, and if liver function is poor, the liver may simply require more vitamin K to function. Some areas of the world seem to suffer almost no HDN, and some researchers suspect that the burden placed on the liver by environmental pollutants in industrialized parts of the world is the real cause of HDN.

Alternatives to the injectable vitamin K used by physicians may be hard to find, and the injectable form is not recommended for oral use. If you have access to the Internet you can find liquid vitamin K for oral use at Dr. Jonathan Wright's Web site, Vitamin K supplements are not recommended for pregnant women prior to delivery but are OK for nursing mothers and can be given in small amounts directly to infants. Either vitamin K1 (phylloquinone), which is found naturally in plants or vitamin K2 (menaquinone), which is the vitamin K made by our friendly intestinal bacteria, is preferred over vitamin K3, the synthetic form.

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