Vitamin K Deficient Bleeding (Hemorrhagic disease of the newborn)

Newborn infants need intramuscular injections of Vitamin K in order to produce critical clotting factors. If they don’t get it they can have potentially life threatening bleeding.


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  • American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Fetus and Newborn.  Controversies Concerning Vitamin K and the Newborn.  Pediatrics 2003 July; 112(1):191-2.
  • Ross, JA, Davies SM. Vitamin K prophylaxis and childhood cancer. Med Pediatr Oncol. 2000 Jun;34(6):434-7.
  • Cornelissen, M., et al.  Prevention of vitamin K deficiency bleeding: efficacy of different multiple oral dose schedules of vitamin K.  Eur J Pediatr.  1997 Feb; 156(2):126-30.
  • Greer, FR, et al. Improving the vitamin K status of breastfeeding infants with maternal vitamin K supplements. Pediatr. 1997 Jan;99(1).
  • Kher P, Verma RP. Hemorrhagic Disease of Newborn. [Updated 2023 Jun 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:


Note: This transcript was partially completed with the use of the Descript AI

Welcome to PEM Currents, the pediatric emergency medicine podcast. As always, I’m your host, Brad Sobolewski. Today, we’re gonna talk about vitamin k deficient bleeding, also known as hemorrhagic disease of the newborn. This is a bleeding disorder that manifests in the first few days to weeks of life after delivery. Under the umbrella are a whole range of hemorrhagic diseases, but the most important is vitamin k deficient bleeding.

I’ll get into why in a moment. Vitamin k itself is a fat soluble vitamin mainly synthesized by gut bacteria. Newborns have minimal vitamin k reserves in a sterile gut. And there’s insufficient placental transfer and breast milk is deficient in vitamin K, so that’s why infants need vitamin K at birth. Without it, they can’t produce clotting factors 2, 7, 9, and 10.

You need all those. In brand newborns, the levels are about 20 percent or less of adult values, but within a month after birth, they arise to within normal limits. Other causes of hemorrhagic disease of the newborn include hereditary clotting factor deficiencies such as hemophilia A or B. And the most common item on the differential, especially for late onset, which we’ll talk about in a moment, is trauma, non accidental or accidental trauma. So why am I covering this topic?

Well, a lot of people out there are actually refusing vitamin k for their newborns. Why? Well, families state that they have concerns about the preservative in the injection, maybe that it could cause autism. It doesn’t. The pain from the injection could be harmful to the infant.

They perceive that the intramuscular vitamin k is a vaccine. It’s not. The dose of intramuscular vitamin K is too high. It isn’t. A potential for adverse reactions to an injection like anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis can happen after IV infusion and it’s been rarely reported after I’m injection, like winning the Powerball odds. The injection is perhaps a potential entry for germs, that the intramuscular vitamin K causes cancer. So there was 1 study published in the British Medical Journal in 1990. It raised that concern, suggesting that the risk of cancer was doubled in babies that receive vitamin K after birth. Many studies since then in Europe and the United States have refuted this claim and there is absolutely no association between vitamin k and cancer.

Other concerns about vitamin K include that vitamin K may overwhelm the newborn’s immune system. There’s just a general desire to be natural and perhaps a belief that oral vitamin k prenatally to the mother is more effective, but it isn’t. Furthermore, parents who refuse IM vitamin k tend to refuse other preventative measures, including the Hep B vaccine at birth, prophylaxis against gonococcal ophthalmia, which is really bad, and subsequent routine vaccination. Approximately 1 half of the severe cases of vitamin k deficient bleeding are associated with parental refusal vitamin k during the birth and hospitalization. So hemorrhagic disease of the newborn vitamin k deficient bleeding can be categorized into 3 groups based on the age of onset.

Early occurs within the first 24 hours after birth and it’s generally due to maternal medicines that block vitamin k action. Uh, most commonly, these are anti epileptics like phenytoin, phenobarbital, carbamazepine or primidone. They could also be anticoagulants, coumadin, aspirin or even some antibiotics like cephalosporins. The incidence in infants who have not received vitamin k prophylaxis in parents that are on these medicines could be 6 to 12 percent. Classical vitamin k deficient bleeding happens within 1 week of neonatal life, the second through the seventh day.

With vitamin k, the risk is 0.01 percent. If babies are exclusively breastfed and they don’t get vitamin k at birth, that increases the risks. Late onset is from 8 days up to 6 to 12 months. And this is generally exclusively breastfed babies and babies with diarrhea, cholestasis or malabsorption because vitamin k absorption is dependent on bile. The risk is about 1 in 15000 to 1 in 20000 births.

Most common symptom of late onset is intracranial bleeding with a mortality of 20 to 50 percent and all the associated morbidity of an intracranial hemorrhage. The reason for the increased risk in exclusively breastfed infants, I. E. Even those who don’t get any solids or anything else, is because there’s only marginal levels of vitamin K in breast milk. Other causes of late onset, cystic fibrosis, celiac, chronic diarrhea, alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency, and forms of hepatitis.

So if you suspect vitamin k deficient bleeding, take a good history. These are some of the points in the history that could lead to you making the diagnosis. So take a history of the drugs that mom was on during pregnancy, especially anticonvulsants. Preterm babies are at a higher risk. Breastfed or bottle fed?

Again, bottle- or formula fed infants are at a lower risk because fortified feedings have higher levels of vitamin K. Where was the delivery? Home delivered infants don’t have access to immediate vitamin k prophylaxis at the same rates that hospitalized infants do. So physical findings that you might see in a patient with vitamin K deficient bleeding include cephalohematoma, intracranial bleeding, intrathoracic bleeding, like hemoptysis or associated respiratory distress, intra abdominal bleeding, so you can see melena, hematemesis, you know, isolated GI bleed. You know, you could also think intussusception and mccals.

Skin, you’ll see petechiae on the mucous membranes. You’ll see hemorrhage or petechiae inside the mouth, on the gums, in the nose, excessive bleeding after circumcision, bleeding from the umbilical cord stump after it’s cut and if the umbilical cord falls off, bleeding from vaccine sites. And I mentioned it before and I’ll say it again, but intracranial bleeding is the worst possible outcome. It’s associated with late onset vitamin k deficient bleeding, and it presents with a floppy baby, lethargy, feeding difficulties, bulging fontanels, poor respiratory effort, altered consciousness, convulsions or pallor. These are sick looking babies.

So in evaluation, you wanna get a CBC. Uh, vitamin k deficient bleeding will have normal platelet levels. Thrombocytopenia actually suggests a maternal immune thrombocytopenia in a newborn. They can make antibodies to platelets which can cross the placenta. Clotting profile, the INR will be greater than 4, because again those factors are needed for proper blood clotting.

The PT will be more than 4 times normal. That’s increased due to decreased activity of factor 7. The PTT will also be increased due to decreased activity of factors 2, 9, and 10. The clotting time will be increased due to clotting factor deficiencies, but fibrinogen levels will remain normal. Protein induced by vitamin k antagonists, PIVCA, I guess.

There’s an estimation you can get a lab on that. Any amount of PIVCA is abnormal and indicates vitamin k deficiency. This disappears around day 5 after the administration of vitamin k, but this lab is not part of the routine ED evaluation. Imaging is targeted at the differential diagnosis in the site of bleeding. So get a chest x-ray or an ultrasound, determine if there’s bleeding in the body cavities, you know, the chest or the abdomen.

Um, CT and MRI are most useful to evaluate for intracranial hemorrhage. So treatment. Uh, vitamin k at birth. I think I mentioned that before. So for an infant that’s greater than 1500 grams, so most of the babies that you’ll be taking care of, 1 milligram I’m Less than 1500 grams, 0.3 mgs per kg up to 0.5 mg per kilogram I’m Intravenous vitamin K is not recommended for prophylaxis in preterm infants.

The form that we now give is vitamin K1, It’s a naturally occurring fat soluble form of vitamin k. So before the introduction of vitamin k 1, long before any of us trained, they used vitamin k 3. K3 was a synthetic water soluble derivative. And in higher doses, it was associated with kernicterus hemolytic anemia and hyperbiliruminemia. So vitamin K1, current version, very safe.

Again, in the US, intramuscular vitamin K at birth is recommended. There are no known toxicity or side effects associated with vitamin K1. Now in some parts of Europe, they’ll do oral regimens at birth, at 2 to 4 weeks, and at 6 to 8 weeks. Uh, they can be weekly or even daily. There’s no licensed oral form for newborns in the US.

Some have given infants the injectable liquid by mouth, but it’s not observed and that’s an unstudied intervention. There’s no safety or efficacy data available on that route of administration. In countries that have gone to oral prophylaxis, failures, even with good compliance, have been reported. Failures have not been reported with routine I’m prophylaxis. So based on the available observational evidence, a single I’m dose of vitamin k appears to be more effective in preventing late onset vitamin k deficient bleeding versus oral regimens.

So maternal dietary changes have little effect overall on vitamin K status of the newborn. There was 1 smaller study that showed that 5 milligrams a day or 800 percent of the recommended daily allowance may raise infant serum levels to near formula fed infants in moms that are breastfeeding. But there’s no FDA approved multivitamin that contains that amount of vitamin K. So if you have a baby with hemorrhagic disease of the newborn, in early and classic forms, the treatment is oral vitamin K, 2 milligrams dose, repeated at 2 to 4 weeks and 6 to 8 weeks. And so again, these are milder forms of bleeding.

All breastfed babies with diarrhea and malabsorption situations require an additional postnatal dose of vitamin K to prevent late onset vitamin K deficient bleeding. For the late form of the disease, oral vitamin K is not as efficacious as parenteral. Hence, the 0.5 to 1 milligram single I’m dose should be administered. A presumptive diagnosis of vitamin k deficient bleeding should be made in an infant presenting with bleeding or neurologic symptoms, and either a prolonged PT and or INR, a history of not receiving vitamin k prophylaxis at birth. You should immediately give them 1 to 2 milligrams IV or sub q.

The vitamin k dose should normalize the coagulation profile within 2 to 3 hours. Infants may need resuscitation with blood products if they’ve lost more than 20 percent of their blood volume. And remember, a newborn can become hypotensive by bleeding enough inside their brain. And also, babies may need 10 to 20 ml per kilo of fresh frozen plasma. I’m going to leave you with a quote from Stanford University and Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital.

So the success of vitamin K prophylaxis has been so dramatic that many practitioners have actually never seen an infant afflicted with hemorrhagic disease of the newborn or vitamin k deficient bleeding. Now, it’s a popular trend in some areas to refuse prophylaxis in an effort to keep things natural for the infant. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the infants most at risk for the classic form of the disease are healthy babies who are exclusively breastfed. So we need to work closely with the parents who refuse vitamin k to help them understand the need for prophylaxis and the severity of the disease. The benefit of using I’m vitamin k injection should be explained to parents.

For those that refuse injection, counseling about the adverse effects of vitamin k deficient bleeding should be explained. The alternate oral dose of 2 milligrams should be recommended in the parents that strictly refuse I’m along with a repetition of that dose at 2 to 4 and then 6 to 8 weeks of age. Alright. So that’s all that I’ve got for this episode on vitamin k deficient bleeding AKA hemorrhagic disease of the newborn. Hopefully, you will feel armed to discuss vitamin k refusal with parents, as well as understand the different forms of the disease, including early, which is related to maternal medicines, classical, which is exclusively breastfed infants who don’t get vitamin k at birth, and the late form, which is the most dire and presents often with intracranial hemorrhage. If you have ideas for other episodes or topics you’d like to suggest, send them my way. I will take your feedback via email, a comment on PEMBLOG, a direct message on a social media platform, a snail mail.

However you wanna get feedback in my direction, let me know. Encourage your colleagues to listen to the podcast as well. More listeners means more learning. And, hey, I know that this can be a tough tough topic to discuss with some parents. I think we’re all better armed to have those conversations if we practice them beforehand.

So hopefully, this episode will prepare you for the next time you meet a newborn whose parents are using vitamin k. For PEM currents, the pediatric emergency medicine podcast, this has been Brad Sobolewski. See you next time.