When choosing to have your baby in a hospital setting, it's important to be informed about the number of medical interventions that are often standard protocol, one of which is the application of a prophylactic eye ointment almost immediately after your baby is born. Be sure to educate yourself as to whether this intervention is right for your baby.
Below is an informative article, written by Amy Weekley, discussing the benefits and drawbacks of this intervention. I've also included a great link to Dr. Jay Gordon's website where you'll find medical reports on how and when erythromycin is most effective.
Most newborns in the Canada, whether delivered by midwife or obstetrician, will receive prophylactic eye ointment shortly after birth. Many parents, however, are opting not to have this treatment administered to their newborns. While prophylactic eye ointment is standard protocol in many areas, parents are free to refuse the treatment (and most other medical interventions) if they so choose.
If the mother has been exposed to chlamydia, syphilis, or gonorrhea, or if her status is unknown, prophylactic eye drops may be well-advised. The eye ointment can prevent infection from these bacteria that may be present in the birth canal. Prophylactic eye drops can also prevent infection from these and other germs in the air and on caretakers' hands. These infections can cause blindness in newborns, so if the newborn is at risk for exposure to these bacteria, prophylactic eye drops should be administered. It is important to note that there is some debate as to whether the erythromycin ointment actually prevents infection – Dr. Jay Gordon provides information on medical studies that are inconclusive. It is also important to note that the bacteria have been found in the eyes of newborns delivered by c-section. As these babies never passed through the birth canal, the bacteria may be transmitted through the air, or on the hands of nurses, doctors and other caregivers.
Prophylactic eye drops do carry some side effects, but these side effects tend to be minor. Clogged tear ducts are the most common complaint, along with minor eye irritation and redness. Prophylactic eye ointment can also temporarily blur vision and many experts speculate that this may interfere with infant/mother bonding during the crucial first moments after birth. To lessen this impact, it may be advisable to postpone eye ointment for at least the first hour after birth, so that the baby may see and bond with the mother during that time.
In instances where the mother has no sexually transmitted diseases and the risk of exposure is low, prophylactic eye ointment may be unnecessary. If you are unsure and would like to determine your risk, simple tests can determine whether or not there are any dangerous bacteria present in the birth canal. Talk with your primary caregiver to determine whether your newborn should receive the treatment at birth. Remember that as with most medical procedures, prophylactic eye drops are elective and may be refused if the parents wish.