In Canada, it is standard practice to give prophylactic treatment to the newborn’s eyes with an antibiotic ointment. The antibiotic most commonly used is erythromycin. In the past silver nitrate drops were used but this is no longer the case.
The purpose of this prophylactic treatment is to prevent eye infections caused by the sexually transmitted diseases Chlamydia and Gonorrhea. If these organisms are present in the mother’s vagina during birth, they can be passed onto the baby and lead to infection. Eye infection due to Chlamydia is the leading cause of blindness in the developing world (where antibiotics are not readily available). In Canada, this result is extremely rare.
The ointment is similar in texture to petroleum jelly. It is squeezed from a tube directly into the baby’s eyes within an hour after birth.
You were probably tested for Chlamydia and Gonorrhea earlier in your pregnancy. (Check with your caregiver.) If you are confident that you have not acquired either of these infections since then (assuming the results were negative or you received treatment), you may decide not to give any eye medication. This includes being absolutely confident that your sexual partner(s) do not have these diseases, which they may have passed on to you. Since both of these diseases can be “silent”, do not rely on being symptom-free as a sign that you or your partner(s) do not have an infection.
However, tests for Gonorrhea and Chlamydia are only accurate 85% of the time.
If you know, or strongly suspect, that you have Gonorrhea, your baby will need more than just this treatment. Both you and baby need to be treated with IV antibiotics.
Some mothers will express breastmilk, and apply this to their baby’s eyes. We know that breastmilk is full of antiviral, antibacterial and healing properties, but it has never actually been proven effective in preventing eye infections due to Chlamydia or Gonorrhea.
Please note that some redness and swelling on your baby’s eyes is normal, especially in the first few days. Whether your baby had treatment or not, if you suspect infection, report this immediately to your caregiver. Cultures can be taken to determine which organism is responsible and appropriate treatment given.