Behind on Your Child’s Early Vaccines? Catch Up Now

This story originally ran May 23, 2022 and was updated Aug. 1, 2023.

Previous generations lived with the terror that their infants could die from several common, highly contagious and devastating diseases, such as diphtheria, smallpox, measles, tetanus, whooping cough, rubella and mumps.

Modern vaccines have largely erased this fear and saved countless young lives. The vast majority of children in the United States are vaccinated by 24 months old against the worst threats. But during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many cautious parents and doctors avoided exposing healthy children to sick ones, and many children fell behind in the vaccination schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We know that COVID caused interruptions in vaccine schedules and well-child checkups, especially early in the pandemic,” says UNC Health pediatrician Katherine Jordan, MD. “But even after some of the restrictions eased up, people still had some hesitancy about taking their infants out where they could be exposed to different things.”

Additionally, many families’ circumstances changed, whether they moved or lost jobs and health insurance.

“This made getting to the doctor much more difficult,” she says.

Now Is the Time to Catch Up on Childhood Vaccines

With the pandemic public health emergency now over and infection prevention measures well-established in medical offices, doctors are encouraging parents to get their children caught up on their vaccines and well-child checkups.

“We’re able to give catch-up vaccines starting at their first visit back,” Dr. Jordan says.

Some parents worry about infants and toddlers getting several vaccines at once, she says, but the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both say it’s safe and that the vaccines won’t interfere with one another.

“Parents can ask to space them out if they have a concern,” Dr. Jordan says, “but it is best for children to get the vaccines as soon as they’re able to.”

If you have questions about the vaccines your child is scheduled to receive or their timing, your pediatrician can answer them.

Vaccines for Babies and Toddlers Are Important to Keep Them Healthy

Vaccines protect infants and young children from illnesses that might be mild in adults or older children—such as whooping cough—but can be devasting and even fatal in little ones.

“When children are small, they don’t have fully developed immune systems,” Dr. Jordan says. “Vaccinations help reduce the rate of meningitis and bloodstream infections, which is why it’s so important to get them as early as possible.” (Vaccines help prevent the bacterial infections that can cause meningitis, for example.)

Well-child checkups are also very important, especially up to age 5. Your doctor’s office should have a routine schedule to follow, typically every few months for babies and young toddlers and then once a year for older children.

The first year, in particular, is a time of rapid growth and development, so a doctor’s oversight is invaluable. “Your doctor can answer your questions about your baby’s progress, and often they can tell early if an infant needs any additional support,” Dr. Jordan says.

Doctors Can Help Identify Mental Health Issues in Adolescents

Well-child checkups are important for older children and teens, too.

“This is especially true with mental health issues,” Dr. Jordan says. “Pediatricians are often the first ones to recognize the signs of depression, anxiety or other conditions, and can help start the process of getting help or therapy for what is going on.”

Because they see a lot of kids, doctors are in a good position to understand what’s normal teen behavior and what is a potential problem.

Most Children Are Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccine Protection

Summer 2022 brought the moment many parents were waiting for: The COVID-19 vaccine was approved for use in children younger than 5, following approval for kids ages 5 to 11 about seven months earlier. That means virtually every American older than 6 months is now eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Some parents have been hesitant about getting their children immunized against COVID-19, but Dr. Jordan notes the vaccines and booster shots have been shown to be safe and effective. She encourages parents who feel unsure about the vaccine to talk to their pediatricians about its safety record.

“We talk with parents about what side effects, if any, they can expect normally (fever, tiredness) and when to call us if something else develops,” she says. “So far, though, vaccine side effects happen at a lower rate and are less serious than the possible complications if you contract COVID and are not vaccinated.”

If your infant or child has not been fully vaccinated, talk to your doctor about when they should catch up or when vaccination is appropriate. If you don’t have one, find a doctor near you.