Why are parents refusing the Vitamin K shot for their babies?

images-2Between February and August of this year, 4 babies in Nashville developed brain hemorrhages or gastrointestinal tract bleeding. Luckily, all of them survived. Not all babies have been so lucky. There was a case, in Australia in 2011, in which the vitamin K shot was refused by the parents and a baby died.

Nashville-area physicians report that an increasing number of parents are refusing vitamin K shots for their babies. Although the percentage of parents refusing the shot is only about 3% at local hospitals, almost 30% of parents refused at birthing centers. And this isn’t just a Nashville thing. Over 20% of parents at a St. Louis-area birthing center refused the shot as well, and I’m sure the stats for hospitals/birthing centers in other places are similar.

Why would parents decline the vitamin K shot? Maybe because of misinformation like that present on Joseph Mercola’s website. Mercola warns of three risks.

1. Inflicting pain on the newborn (in the form of a shot). He warns that the momentary prick of the shot may have long-term effects on the baby’s wellbeing and may jeopardize the success of breastfeeding. I’ll let you judge for yourself whether you think this sounds reasonable. I don’t, and there is certainly no good evidence to support it.

2. The amount of vitamin K injected is 20,000 times the needed dose and contains toxic preservatives. Wow, 20,000 times the necessary dose? Toxic preservatives? What is his source for this dramatic claim? A peer-reviewed journal article? Nope, I’m afraid not. It’s a website called Giving Birth Naturally. This website, in turn, gives no sources at all. Solid stuff, Dr. Mercola!

3. Babies run the risk of acquiring an infection at the injection site. This is true of any injection, but the chances of infection are so, so small. Even a hypochondriac like me thinks this is a pretty minimal risk. Infinitesimally small–I can’t even find reliable numbers on how often it happens, it’s so rare. For what it’s worth, I haven’t been able to find a single reported case of a baby developing an infection at the site of a vitamin K injection.

Now even Mercola acknowledges that the vitamin K shot doesn’t cause cancer. Unfortunately, not everybody has gotten that memo. Check out this website: the Healthy Home Economist. Although the author DOES eventually point out that the vitamin K-leukemia link has been debunked, she buries this acknowledgement in the comments, where no one will read it. Nice. The same uber-outdated information is also found in Mothering Magazine’s Natural Family Living Guide to Parenting. If you’d like to take a look at some of the articles debunking this association, you can check out this one in the New England Journal of Medicine (from way back in 1993!) or this more recent one, from the British Journal of Cancer.

Many of these anti-vitamin K shot websites give suggestions for what parents can do in lieu of the shot. Unfortunately, they are not well thought out.

1. Why not just request an oral dose of vitamin K for your baby? Because it doesn’t prevent hemorrhaging, that’s why. While it sounds totally reasonable, single oral doses just don’t do the trick.  Comparisons of “failure rates,” i.e. the rates of hemorrhaging, in countries that use different methods to administer vitamin K  demonstrate that a limited number of big oral doses just doesn’t work as well as the shot. Daily, low doses may be as effective as the shot–but to the best of my knowledge, those aren’t an option in the US.

2. Eat a lot of vitamin K-rich foods and breastfeed your baby. Again, not a great strategy. Very little vitamin K makes it into breastmilk, even when a mother eats a lot of it. Very little can cross the placenta beforehand either, even if the mom has a great diet. That’s why the shot is necessary.

You would never realize it from the scare-mongering articles out there on the internet, but in reality the risks associated with the vitamin K shot are negligible compared to its potential benefits. It’s true that the chances of any one baby developing vitamin K deficiency-related bleeding are small–but when such a great way to avoid this risk is present, why not use it? A vitamin K shot may not be natural (meaning it didn’t exist tens of thousands of years ago). But neither are vaccines. Or carseats. And these inventions save lives. For any given child, the risk of dying from a hemmorhage or measles or a car accident may be small. But at the population level, these easy fixes make a difference–they save lives.

6 thoughts on “Why are parents refusing the Vitamin K shot for their babies?

  1. So you’re placing parents who refuse synthetic injections into their babies with those who refuse to use car seats? Credibility – lowered.

    • Yes, essentially. Both vitamin K shots and car seats are safe, low-cost solutions to low probability, but potentially fatal, problems. I’m not sure what being synthetic has to do with the value of vitamin K shots. Many naturally occurring materials are toxic, and many man-made materials are beneficial. Also, we often synthesize naturally occurring compounds, so it’s not as though there is some clear barrier between natural and synthetic. Vitamin K1 (the form of vitamin K contained in the shot) is naturally occurring–it’s found in many veggies and some oils.

      • Well, vitamin k has been proven to reduce the chances of a baby contracting that rare 34 of 100,000 (who don’t take vitamin k) VKDB disease. Reducing that number to less than 1 of 100,000 by injecting vitamin k seems like a no brainer. However, considering that the potential risks of synthetic and preservative filled vitamin K injections are jaundice, flushing, rash, infection (though very rare) and risk of allergic reaction that can cause death, distribution of healthier oral vitamin k looks like a reasonable alternative. Especially because oral vitamin k, if given correctly, can in fact significantly reduce the risk of contracting VKDB, from 34 out of 100,000 to roughly 4.

        Sources:
        (government website) http://www.adhb.govt.nz/newborn/Guidelines/Blood/VitaminK.htm
        http://www.betterbirth.com/site/vitamin-k

      • Although oral vitamin K is better than nothing, it’s still significantly riskier than the shot (I linked to a comparative study in my blog post). As the NZ site you linked to explains, jaundice was a risk associated with the shots in the 1950s, but it is not really a problem today–the doses are too low for that. Also not sure where the concern about allergic reactions comes from–again, at high doses (like those used in cancer trials), allergies do occur, but we’re talking about the much smaller doses given to infants. Flushing and rashes may rarely occur (these vague reactions are associated with all sorts of things), but unlike hemorrhaging they are not fatal. I’m not sure where the betterbirth site got their info (maybe old papers on jaundice?), but in general it’s risky to rely on websites that don’t cite credible sources for the risks they describe. Also–I’m happy that you’re visiting the blog, but for future reference I do ask that posters provide real email addresses.

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