No sooner has your baby arrived than the time for their shots rolls around. Although immunizations are a routine part of infants’ healthcare, receiving that call from the clinic for their first jabs can feel like a big deal. Questions prey on the minds of many parents, ranging from what the side effects are to how much it will really hurt the baby and whether immunization is necessary at all.
The WHO uses the term “vaccine hesitancy” to describe people who are unsure about vaccinations, ranking it among the top 10 global health threats of our time. Uncertainty about vaccines and refusal to vaccinate are pretty widespread. Most of us have someone in our social circle who has made the decision not to immunize their child. This can in turn make us doubt our own decisions. After all, their kid seems fine, right?
We tend to associate medical advances with fancy new drugs, but immunizations represent true progress—they are second only to clean drinking water in terms of ensuring our survival as a species. Vaccinations have greatly reduced infant deaths from infectious diseases. High vaccination rates in communities also lead to the eradication of disease due to a herd immunity effect.
Infections such as whooping cough (pertussis), HiB, meningococcal meningitis, blood poisoning (sepsis), and measles are major causes of death and serious disease, with infants being especially prone to complications.
If you’re asking yourself whether you should immunize your baby, by all means, give your healthcare provider a call. False information bombards us these days, fueling our concerns via media scares and internet rumors or through well-meaning but confused friends. Most doctors and nurses will sit down with you and answer any questions in advance to make sure that no child misses their shots.
Understanding your baby’s immune system
Newborns’ immune systems are a delicate thing. The womb protects babies for 9 months, after which they enter a world full of new viruses and bacteria. Infants build most of their immunity with antibodies transferred through mom’s breast milk. Colostrum is especially rich in antibodies.
Babies under 3 months old are particularly vulnerable to serious infections, so you should immediately report any fever of 100.4° F (38° C) or above to your healthcare provider. At around 3 months, the immune system starts to mature.
There is mounting evidence that vitamin D plays a role in building strong immunity. Guidelines on supplements for babies vary depending on whether you are breast- or bottle-feeding. Check with your physician according to your circumstances.
Once you commence weaning, introduce a diet rich in various fruit and vegetables as it is best for developing strong immunity.
Diseases preventable by immunization
Fortunately, most children now live longer and healthier lives due to widespread vaccinations. Here’s a rundown of the childhood vaccinations recommended by the CDC:
Hepatitis B: A common and potentially serious virus that causes liver damage and even liver cancer in the long run. Spread from mother to infant (usually at birth) or through household and sexual contact.
Diphtheria: A serious bacterial infection of the throat spread by coughing and sneezing. Now rare in developed countries due to immunization, the disease can lead to breathing problems and heart and nerve damage.
Tetanus: Spread by spores found in soil, tetanus leads to the so-called lockjaw and severe muscle spasms.
Polio: Spread through contaminated water and/or feces, this virus can cause permanent limb paralysis.
HiB: Haemophilus Influenzae B is not the flu (influenza) virus. HiB is a serious bacterial infection that causes blood poisoning and meningitis.
Pneumococcal disease: Another leading cause of blood poisoning and meningitis.
MMR: Stands for measles, mumps, and rubella, which are prevented with a combined 3-in-1 vaccine. These 3 viruses cause similar febrile illness but with different complications, measles being the most serious one. It remains a major cause of child death worldwide due to complications such as pneumonia. Rubella is primarily known for causing congenital illness in pregnancy. As for mumps, many people immediately think of the painful swelling under the ears, but this virus can also cause testicular and brain inflammation.
Varicella: The medical term for chickenpox, a viral infection manifesting with fever and an itchy rash.
Hepatitis A: A liver infection spread through contaminated food and water.
HPV: Stands for human papillomavirus, which is very common and is transmitted via sexual contact. While HPV can go away on its own, it is a persistent virus known to cause cervical and other types of cancer.
MenACWY: Protects against bacteria causing blood poisoning and meningitis, particularly in young adults.
Having several different vaccines in one shot means less pain and discomfort for your child and fewer clinic visits for you or other carers. Combination vaccinations have been in widespread use for many years. For a list of the current ones in use, see here.
CDC immunization schedule
You can find the full chart here, but, in general, your child’s immunization journey will look something like this:
- Birth: Hepatitis B first dose
- 2 months: Hepatitis B; rotavirus; diphtheria, tetanus, and polio (DTaP combined vaccine); HiB; pneumococcal; polio
- 4 months: Rotavirus, DTaP, HiB, pneumococcal, polio boosters
- 6 months: DTaP, HiB, pneumococcal boosters
- Around 12 to 18 months: Hepatitis B, DTaP, HiB, pneumococcal and polio boosters. 1st MMR, varicella, hepatitis A
- 4 to 6 years: DTaP, varicella, MMR, polio boosters
- 11-12 years: DTaP booster, HPV (2 doses), MenACWY
- 16 years: MenACWY booster
From the age of 6 months, all children are also offered an annual flu shot.
If your child has certain health conditions, your healthcare provider may recommend other vaccinations based on individual circumstances.
Children don’t yet receive COVID-19 vaccines because trials are still under way. The vast majority of children with a COVID-19 infection experience only mild symptoms, but those with other health issues may be more vulnerable. There is increasingly solid evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent the spread of the virus, so the situation may well change.
Should I delay my baby’s immunizations?
Occasionally, you might wonder if it’s better to wait until your child is a little older before you start immunizations. However, this can leave them unprotected and vulnerable. Many serious but preventable infections circulate in the community due to lower immunization levels. I regularly see measles, mumps, and whooping cough in my clinic due to this. Generally speaking, it’s better to follow the schedule, unless your pediatrician advises against it for a specific reason.
Sometimes life gets in the way of orderly immunization. One example is your child being hospitalized. In this case, you can pick up the schedule right where you left off.
Reactions to immunization in babies
First of all, don’t panic. Although common, reactions are mild, and most parents can take them in stride. You can expect a slight fever or a grumpy baby within a day or two of your infant receiving a vaccine. These are just a sign that the immune system is doing its job. It’s also normal for your baby to feel a bit sleepy after any shots.
Mild swelling and redness around the vaccine site are also typical reactions.
If your child’s symptoms persist after a dose of infants’ Tylenol and a cuddle, it would be best to speak to your doctor.
Overall, immunizations have been great for the health and survival of children worldwide. Being informed is part of doing a good job as a parent, so do ask your doctor any questions you may have before you go ahead.