Erythromycin, a.k.a. newborn eye ointment or "eye goop", is a common antibiotic given to babies within an hour of birth in many hospitals and birth settings. It is a gel squeezed over and into the newborn's eyes.
Why is it given? Because the presence of an active chlamydia or gonorrhea infection in the mother can pass to baby while in the birth canal. In some instances it can cause an infection in the baby's eyes called ophthalmia neonatorum that may result in blindness. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are both sexually transmitted infections
Here's the great news:
If you don't have chlamydia or gonorrhea, your baby is not at risk. Yay, they don't need it!
If you do have chlamydia or gonorrhea, we now have very effective ways to test for and treat those STIs before birth. Yay, they don't need it!
If not resolved at birth, erythromycin is very effective at preventing that ophthalmia neonatorum infection and possible blindness. Yay, thank God we have it!
Here's the bad news:
Most hospitals still routinely treat every baby even though the vast majority don’t need it and despite new recommendations and other countries no longer doing so. Like much of the system, it universally treats everyone to prevent the one extremely rare instance rather than offer individualized care that reflects evidence and respect for the person. This is true even if baby is born by cesarean with unbroken membranes and literally has zero risk of infection. This is true even if the mother has tested negative for any STDs.
There is concern over using unnecessary antibiotics at all times but especially in the fragile time right after birth as the baby's entire body is establishing its microbiome. It can also burn, sting, irritate, and even cause an allergic reaction. There is also concern over it blurring the baby's early short-sighted vision which is designed to identify the areola of the breast and better establish breastfeeding and sees just far enough to make eye contact with the mother while nursing.
Like any intervention, you should have the right to freely decline this. However, it's important to know that in some hospitals if mandated by the state there may be repercussions such as a CPS report or even a court order forcing the medication despite parental objection or medical need.
This is one reason why it's very important to know beforehand how a birth place or provider handles common newborn protocols like erythromycin, vitamin K, the hepatitis B shot, blood sugar testing, weight assessment, jaundice treatment, etc. before deciding to birth with them. The moment a baby is born, parents lose many of what should be their natural and God-ordained rights to make free and reasonable medical decisions. Choose places and providers that not only respect evidence using medication only when needed but who also respect the rights and intelligence of parents to make these decisions for their babies.
Want to learn more about erythromycin and its use? Here's a great article on the topic.