Vitamin K at Birth: To Inject or Not
What's the Concern?
The problem of bleeding into the brain occurs mainly from 3 to 7 weeks after birth in just over 5 out of 100,000 births (without vitamin K injections); 90% of those cases are breastfed infants,3 because formulas are supplemented with unnaturally high levels of vitamin K. Forty percent of these infants suffer permanent brain damage or death.
The cause of this bleeding trauma is generally liver disease that has not been detected until the bleeding occurs. Several liver problems can reduce the liver's ability to make blood-clotting factors out of vitamin K; therefore extra K helps this situation. Infants exposed to drugs or alcohol through any means are especially at risk, and those from mothers on anti-epileptic medications are at very high risk and need special attention.
Such complications reduce the effectiveness of vitamin K, and in these cases, a higher level of available K could prevent the tragic intracranial bleeding. This rare bleeding disorder has been found to be highly preventable by a large-dose injection of vitamin K at birth.
The downside of this practice however is a possibly 80% increased risk of developing childhood leukemia. While a few studies have refuted this suggestion, several tightly controlled studies have shown this correlation to be most likely.4,5 The most current analysis of six different studies suggests it is a 10 or 20% increased risk. This is still a significant number of avoidable cancers.6
Extracting data from available literature reveals that there are 1.5 extra cases of leukemia per 100,000 children due to vitamin K injections, and 1.8 more permanent injuries or deaths per 100,000 due to brain bleeding without injections. Adding the risk of infection or damage from the injections, including a local skin disease called "scleroderma" that is seen rarely with K injections,8 and even adding the possibility of healthy survival from leukemia, the scales remain tipped toward breastfed infants receiving a prophylactic vitamin K supplementation. However, there are better options than the .5 or 1 milligram injections typically given to newborns.
A Better Solution
The breastfed infant can be supplemented with several low oral doses of liquid vitamin K9 (possibly 200 micrograms per week for 5 weeks, totaling 1 milligram, even more gradual introduction may be better). Alternatively, the nursing mother can take vitamin K supplements daily or twice weekly for 10 weeks. (Supplementation of the pregnant mother does not alter fetal levels but supplementation of the nursing mother does increase breastmilk and infant levels.)
Either of these provides a much safer rate of vitamin K supplementation. Maternal supplementation of 2.5 mg per day, recommended by one author, provides a higher level of vitamin K through breastmilk than does formula,10 and may be much more than necessary.
Formula provides 10 times the U.S. recommended daily allowance," and this RDA is about 2 times the level in unsupplemented human milk. One milligram per day for 10 weeks for mother provides a cumulative extra 1 milligram to her infant over the important period and seems reasonable. Neither mother nor infant require supplementation if the infant is injected at birth.11
(*and there are references!!)