Ask an Expert: Vitamin K shots for newborns

Q: Do all babies need a vitamin K shot? I don’t like the idea of sticking a needle in my newborn.

Answer from Dr. John V. McDonald, director of Neonatal Services: 

All babies do need a vitamin K injection within the first few hours of life. This is necessary to ensure that their blood has a normal ability to clot. Most newborns get enough vitamin K in their early diet to enable their blood to clot normally. About 1 of every 200 healthy-looking babies, however, may not have enough vitamin K in their system, and as a result could develop abnormal bleeding. This bleeding can occur in any part of the body at any time, and can be very serious and possibly life-threatening. Vitamin K effectively prevents this risk.

There has been some controversy surrounding vitamin K shots, primarily owing to a study published in 1990 that suggested the shot increased the risk of childhood leukemia. These results caused a great deal of alarm, but the findings simply haven’t borne out. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) formed a task force to review the study’s findings. The task force determined that if there was a link between injected vitamin K and childhood leukemia, then there should have been a sharp increase in the incidence of childhood leukemia after 1961, when the AAP first recommended that all newborns be given Vitamin K at birth. However, no increased incidence of childhood leukemia has occurred.

Currently, the AAP’s recommendations on vitamin K for newborns include:
  • Vitamin K should be given by one-dose injection to all newborns.
  • An oral dosage of vitamin K, not currently available in the United States, should be developed and licensed.
  • Oregon law has mandated the vitamin K shot since 1983.
  • Parents who opt not to have the shot must sign a waiver indicating that they have refused it.
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