There are always a million things to do when you’re expecting a new baby. Make sure your list includes getting family and caregivers up to date on their vaccines.
“Everyone who is going to be in contact with the baby should have all the standard vaccines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC,” says UNC Health pediatrician Heather W. Williams, MD. “It’s one way we can help protect babies until they gradually get vaccinated against these diseases.”
Newborns are too young to be vaccinated against illnesses such as whooping cough, influenza and COVID-19. If they contract a viral or bacterial illness, they can become much sicker than healthy older children or adults would, and could even die. That’s why, during a baby’s first two or three months, it’s especially critical to take steps to keep them healthy.
If you are pregnant, ask your doctor which vaccines you should receive and which ones you should not get until after you’ve given birth.
People who will be around the baby also need to be vaccinated, including fathers and other parents, siblings, grandparents, babysitters and child care workers.
Here are the vaccines Dr. Williams says are critical:
Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis (Tdap and DTaP) Shots
These vaccines generally come in one shot, called Tdap for adolescents and adults and DTaP for babies and young children. Pertussis, also called whooping cough, poses the biggest threat to newborns. Babies with whooping cough may struggle to breathe and turn blue, and they can’t get their first DTaP dose until they are 2 months old.
“We really want to avoid having newborns exposed to whooping cough,” Dr. Williams says. “Newborns are likely to get really sick, and there’s a risk of respiratory distress and even death.”
Pregnant women are advised to get the Tdap shot early in the third trimester, each time they are pregnant, to give their babies some protection before birth.
Family and caregivers should be immunized too. Adults need Tdap boosters every 10 years. Check with your doctor if you don’t remember the last time you had a shot.
Flu and COVID-19 Shots
Pregnant women can receive influenza and COVID-19 vaccines and pass some immunity on to their babies in utero. Other caregivers should get vaccinated to reduce the likelihood that they’ll expose a newborn to the flu or COVID-19. Babies cannot receive these vaccines until they are 6 months old.
“Babies are generally more vulnerable to all respiratory viruses, like the flu,” Dr. Williams says.
Get a flu shot every fall when the seasonal version comes out, and make sure you’re up to date on your initial COVID-19 shots and boosters. Dr. Williams recommends that parents and others who will be in contact with a newborn check with their primary care doctor or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find the latest recommendations.
Other Ways to Keep a Newborn Healthy
Even if everyone around the baby has been vaccinated, it’s a good idea to make sure people wash their hands thoroughly before holding the baby or anything that is going to touch the baby, Dr. Williams says.
“Have hand sanitizer nearby and ask visitors to use it before they hold the baby,” she says.
It’s also reasonable for new parents to ask visitors to wear masks when they hold a newborn, especially during cold and flu season, she says.
Siblings may be the hardest people to get to be cautious, she says.
“They can be very sweet, and they’ll naturally want to be involved and be up close, right in the new baby’s face,” Dr. Williams says. “There’s no real way to prevent exposure 100 percent if an older sibling is in day care, for example, but you can do sensible things like hand-washing and encourage the older children to kiss baby on the feet instead of the face.”
She doesn’t recommend going to extremes, such as isolating an older child if they get sick. Just encourage them to keep their hands washed and possibly wear a mask around the baby. Adults should be extra cautious, too—if you are tending to another child who is sick while also caring for your baby, make sure to wash your hands frequently and wear a mask.
A Fever in a Newborn Is an Emergency
If a baby younger than 2 months old gets a fever, they need immediate medical attention.
“Until a baby can get several important vaccines at 2 months, you should be vigilant,” Dr. Williams says. “Ask anyone who is sick to wait until they’re well to come see the baby. Consider holding off on taking the baby to large indoor public places and events. If newborns and young infants get a fever, it’s considered a medical emergency.”
Newborns with fevers may be hospitalized so doctors can do tests to see what is causing the fever.
“Babies who are infected can get much sicker than older children and adults, especially with the more invasive bacterial infections,” Dr. Williams says. “That’s why we are so thorough.”
Ensuring that everyone who will be in contact with the baby is up to date on their vaccines and takes other commonsense measures to prevent infections will help your baby have a healthy beginning to life.
“Having a new baby in the house is really a good motivator to get those boosters,” Dr. Williams says.
If you are going to be around a newborn, ask your doctor about getting up to date on your vaccines and boosters, or find a doctor near you.