If you’re like me, you'd rather naturally fortify your kid’s diet with nutrient-rich foods rather than a supplement. The food over supplement rule may even apply to your wee one – when the vitamin K shot is offered within hours of birth. After all, doesn't breast milk have everything your baby needs?
Not so fast. There's something called vitamin K deficiency. It can affect newborns. And it's life-threatening.
The vitamin K shot protects against vitamin K deficiency and against bleeding. Bleeding from vitamin K deficiency usually happens on the second or third day of life. If a mother has declined the vitamin K shot, bleeding can show up in her healthy exclusively breastfed baby if the baby isn't getting enough breast milk or the breast milk doesn't have enough vitamin K.
As far as the risks of the vitamin K shot, the science isn’t so clear. For example, the vitamin K shot typically contains some of the same preservatives you’ll find in childhood vaccines. And there may be a link between Vitamin K injections and childhood cancer.
If this sounds like a good argument for the vitamin K shot, consider this – humans are the only mammals that need to supplement with vitamin K at birth to prevent life-threatening complications.
This is because only small amounts of vitamin K crosses the placenta. And coagulation factors that rely on vitamin K often dip on day one or two of life…then pick up again on day six. Also – because breast milk contains alarmingly low levels of vitamin K and formula is fortified, exclusively breastfed babies are more likely to bleed from vitamin K deficiency.
So, what gives?
A story about vitamin K
Back in the 1930s, a scientist from the University of Copenhagen – Henrik Dam – closely examined chicks fed a cereal-free diet that was missing cholesterol and other fat-loving compounds. The skin and the organs of the chicks suffered from bleeding.
While the scientist suspected scurvy from a diet missing vitamin C, it turns out that the chicks were deficient in another nutrient. Later researchers found that a fat-soluble substance from hemp seed, alfalfa, and hog liver could reverse the tendency to bleed.
This substance was named vitamin K. K for koagulation or coagulation, which is what happens when blood slows and solidifies around a wound.
Like chicks, when humans are deprived of foods that contain vitamin K – they bleed. According to Cees Vermeer at Maastricht University,
The fact that breast milk can be rapidly enriched by increasing the mother’s vitamin K intake illustrates once more that during the last centuries changed dietary habits have resulted in a decline of vitamin K intake to dangerously low levels.
The moral of this story is that breast milk can give your baby enough vitamin K within the first few hours and days of life. However in order for breast milk to contain enough vitamin K, mama-to-be must get plenty of vitamin K through her diet or through a supplement.
How to boost vitamin K in breast milk
To be clear, vitamin K refers to a whole family of fat-soluble vitamins. Within this family are vitamin K1 (also known as phylloquinone) and vitamin K2 (also known as menaquinones).
In order to boost your breast milk's vitamin K levels, keep taking your prenatal vitamin. I like this one.
While breast milk contains a type of vitamin K called MK-4 (menaquinone-4), you do not need to supplement directly with MK-4. Research shows that taking vitamin K1 will boost MK-4 levels in a dose dependent manner. This means that the more vitamin K1 you take, the more MK-4 shows up in breast milk.
Aside from supplementing with vitamin K, your diet can contain foods that are rich in vitamin K.
Vitamin K1 – You'll find vitamin K1 in green leafy veggies like spinach and kale. It's important to eat your veggies with fat, since vitamin K is fat soluble. For example, making kale chips with lard will support your absorption of vitamin K.
Vitamin K2 – This type of vitamin K is mostly a byproduct of fermentation. You'll find MK-7 in natto, or fermented soybean. Likewise, cheese and curd cheese contain vitamin K2. Aside from fermented foods – egg yolk, liver, and meat are a good source of MK-4. You'll find the highest levels of MK-4 in liver, poultry, and pork.
It’s important to mention that the first day of breastfeeding gives your baby the most vitamin K. Also, how much breast milk your baby consumes matters. You can boost your baby’s coagulation factors by making sure your wee one gets over 100 ml of breast milk each day. And the fattier hind milk contains more vitamin K than foremilk.
When to give your baby the vitamin K shot
There are some drugs that inhibit vitamin K. When a mother is on one of these drugs, there is an increased risk for her baby to experience vitamin K deficiency bleeding. These drugs include:
- Anticonvulsants, like carbamazepine, phenytoin and barbiturates
- Antituberculosis drugs, like isoniazid, rifampicin
- Some antibiotics, like cephalosporins
- Vitamin K antagonists, like coumarin and warfarin
If you are not on any of these drugs, you may want to explore alternatives to the vitamin K shot by naturally boosting your breast milk's levels of vitamin K. You can do this with leafy green veggies and with a good prenatal vitamin, like this one.
Whether or not you think the vitamin K shot is a hoax, if you want to decline the shot – be sure to talk about your options with your doctor or midwife.