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. “Doctors’ offices were limiting how many people they were seeing to prevent the spread of COVID. But even after some of those 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 lost jobs and health insurance or moved.
“This made getting to the doctor much more difficult,” she says.
Now Is the Time to Catch Up on Childhood Vaccines
With the pandemic more under control and infection prevention measures well-established in medical offices, doctors are now encouraging parents to get their children caught up on their vaccines and well-child checkups.
“We are seeing kids who’ve had a gap in care,” Dr. Jordan says. “We’re able to give catch-up vaccines starting at their first visit back.”
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, especially, 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.
Children 5 and Older Are Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccine Protection
Millions of children ages 5 and up have received the COVID-19 vaccine, which has been shown to be safe and effective, Dr. Jordan says.
She encourages parents who initially felt hesitant or 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.