Newborn Eye Ointment at Birth

Baby getting eye ointment

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After your baby is born, usually in the first hour or two, they will be treated with eye medication, usually referred to by parents as eye drops or eye ointment. This is an antibiotic ointment given to protect your baby from developing an eye infection after birth.

The ointment prevents infections caused by exposure to gonorrhea or chlamydia but it also protects against other bacteria commonly found in the vaginal and rectal area, which is why it is required for all vaginal deliveries even if you don't have a sexually transmitted disease (STI). Without this treatment, there is the risk of infection and blindness in babies, it is given by state law.

What's Used

Erythromycin is the typical eye ointment used in newborns. States used to use silver nitrate but have since stopped because it would burn the infant's eyes. You should ask what is used where you intend to give birth. If you are planning a homebirth, your pediatrician may need to write you a prescription to fill before you give birth or the midwife or doctor may bring it with them. It will be available at the hospital or birth center, typically without the need to do anything beforehand.

Timing

The timing and administration are usually dictated by state law. Though some practitioners will simply go by their personal or hospital policies. Typically, most infants will be given the eye ointment when the baby is taken to be cleaned up and weighed and/or just before mom is transferred from the labor and delivery until to the postpartum unit unless it they are already in a labor/delivery/recovery/postpartum (LDRP) unit.

If you have any questions about the treatment or when it will be administered for your newborn, consult with your practitioner. They will be able to help you with the specifics guidelines followed in your state.

Should You Delay the Treatment?

Some parents worry that the medication used in the eye may be harmful, hinder sight for a short period of time, or be uncomfortable for the baby. For these reasons, they may request on their birth plans to delay the treatment for a short period of time while they get to know their baby.

You may question if this medication is needed, as it's unusual to hear of a newborn with a serious eye infection—but the reason it's rare is because of the effectiveness of the medication. So, yes, it's very important for newborns to get this medication.

Know that there aren't inherent risks of this procedure—it's similar to putting antibiotic ointment on a cut to prevent infection. Typically, it does not cause any distress to the baby. Also, newborns likely don't see well to begin with, so a little ointment in their eye may not make much difference in clarity, and it's also unlikely to inhibit parent-child bonding. Keep in mind that your baby is using all their senses to experience their new surroundings, including touch, smell, and taste.

That said, many hospitals that have the "Baby-Friendly" designation will delay this treatment, if requested to do so, at least for the first hour of the baby's life while the baby is skin to skin with the mother and breastfeeding. This is something that you can ask about when you take a hospital tour before you give birth.

Post-Treatment Care

Once it's been applied, don't need to do anything except leave the medication alone. Although it can be tempting to remove the excess ointment, it's best to leave it. Typically, it is absorbed within the hour. Then, you can rest easy knowing that your baby's eyes have been protected against any incidental bacteria they might have been exposed to during the birth.

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3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Eye Institute. Pink eye in infants. Updated June 26, 2019.

  2. National Institutes of Health. Erythromycin. Updated March 2021.

  3. Hyvärinen L, Walthes R, Jacob N, Chaplin KN, Leonhardt M. Current understanding of what infants seeCurr Ophthalmol Rep. 2014;2(4):142-149. doi:10.1007/s40135-014-0056-2