Vitamin K, Antibiotic Eye Treatment and Hepatitis B Shots for Newborns

Your baby's first shots include vitamin K and hepatitis B vaccinations, as well as antibiotic ointment for her eyes. Here's exactly why she needs it all.

Vitamin K, Antibiotic Eye Treatment and Hepatitis B Shots For Newborns FamVeld/Shutterstock

Shortly after your baby is born, he'll receive his first shots and medications for some very serious health issues, including a rare bleeding disorder and a few sexually transmitted diseases. Few parents question why their baby needs these medications, but a few who do, ask: Why should my child be treated for health problems he probably doesn't have? Because your child is part of the general population.

What drugs will he get? Vitamin K, antibiotic ointment in the eyes, and a Hepatitis B vaccination. There might be other shots too, depending on the vaccination schedule your pediatrician and hospital adhere to and any other medications your baby needs. Vitamin K and eye treatment are considered mandatory and Hepatitis B vaccines are strongly encouraged. These medications might be given immediately after birth and before you even know it.

Vitamin K

Your baby will get Vitamin K injected into his leg, in case he's among the 0.25% to 1.7% of babies born with vitamin K deficiency bleeding—a serious bleeding disorder that can cause healthy-appearing babies to hemorrhage because they don't have enough vitamin K to clot their blood. A single vitamin K shot, reduces chances of VKDB significantly.

Most states mandate that all babies receive vitamin K as soon as possible (usually within the first hour) after birth. Parents can sign a waiver if they object in some states, but they'll be given some grief about it. They can also opt for oral vitamin K, though it requires multiple doses to be given by parents. The shot is fast and while most babies cry when they get it, it's over and done with in about a second. Oral vitamin K tastes nasty (I've tried it) and while it may save a baby from getting poked, it requires he suck back that nasty flavor many times.

Some parents who object to the shot are less concerned about the needle than they are about old reports there may be a connection between vitamin K and childhood leukemia. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying research conducted by a task force found no association between vitamin K injections and leukemia.

Antibiotic cream in Baby's eyes

Once in a while parents ask whether babies get silver nitrate drops in their eyes. They don't and hospitals haven't used that stuff for decades. We do, however, put antibiotic ointment (usually erythromycin) in their eyes. Why? Just in case their mother has Chlamydia or gonorrhea. It kills other germs as well, but the reason why newborn eye treatment is mandatory is to prevent blindness caused by these two STDs. But aren't all mothers tested for STDs during pregnancy? Yes, they are. Occasionally, a mother picks up a case of something nasty after she's tested, but before her baby is born. Public health officials want to cover those "just in case" cases. Yeah, it's a little off-putting and most parents won't be told that's why we do it. Instead, they'll be told, "all kinds of germs get into babies eyes." Sounds better, right?

Does antibiotic cream hurt babies? No. They don't seem to notice it though it probably makes their vision a little blurrier than it already is at birth. Can parents refuse? Ask your doctor about that. State laws vary. Should they refuse? That depends on how big a fuss you want to make. It's a public health thing, not a personal insult to parents. Does it happen that some mothers are inadvertently infected and they don't know it? Yes. It happens. Should all babies pay for this? That's hard to say, but that's how public health works. You treat all for the benefit of a few.

Hepatitis B

Hep B causes serious liver inflammation due to infection with the hepatitis B virus. It's spread through having contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and other body fluids of someone who already has a hepatitis B infection. A series of three vaccinations prevents people from getting Hep B, which can cause liver failure.

Many newborns get their first dose of vaccination right along with their vitamin K shot or before they go home from the hospital. What's the rush since newborns don't engage in risky sexual behavior or use IV drugs? Again, it's a public health thing. If all babies start their Hep B series in the hospital, public health officials know they'll at least get one vaccine. They don't know for sure their parents will bring them back for the other two, but at least they got that first dose and that might provide some protection.

Is the vaccine safe? Yes. Lots of studies have shown it to be safe and effective. Since Hep B can be fatal and is preventable, there are a lot of good arguments for a child getting vaccinated before they become sexually active. Can parents refuse? Yes and you can delay this vaccination until your child is older. Most schools, however, require kids to be up-to-date on vaccines before they're allowed to attend.

As a parent, you'll do lots of things for the health and well-being of the general population. Vaccinations are just the start. Is it a little frightening that your child will be treated for diseases he'll probably never be at risk for? Sure, but the reality is, your child will live in this world with all the risks and benefits it provides. His health is part of public health, not just a private family matter. Our public health policies aren't perfect, but they go a long way to protect a lot of people from serious illness.