Here’s what you need to know to protect your little one against this year’s flu.
When Joanna Richardson’s family came to see her two-month-old baby girl in Washington, DC, recently, she had one important question before she let them in the door: Did you get your flu shot?
“We’ve been super-worried about the flu this year,” says Richardson, who has has been hearing nonstop stories on the news about this flu season’s deadly toll. “We’ve asked all the aunts, uncles, and grandparents to get the flu shot before they hold they baby. With friends, we just say, ’If you’re sick, don’t come over.” Healthy friends who visit are asked to be extra-careful washing hands, Richardson says.
Like Richardson, parents of babies and small children all over the country are being more vigilant this year about asking friends and family to verify that they’ve been vaccinated before they get within cuddling distance of their child. And while some relatives may roll their eyes and complain of today’s overprotective parents, there is every reason to be extra cautious.
First of all, babies can’t get a flu vaccine until they’re six months old, meaning their best barrier of protection before then is to make sure they’re not exposed to the influenza virus at all.
Second, babies, toddlers and preschoolers are at a higher risk for developing complications such as pneumonia when they do come down with the flu, explains Flor M. Munoz, MD, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Children under age 5 and adults over age 65 are the groups most at risk of being hospitalized or dying from the flu,” she explains. “Babies don’t have a mature immune system yet—they’re still figuring out how to fight infection. Their little lungs are still developing, they get more inflammation, and it takes longer for them to recover.”
(In case you’re worried it’s too late, there is still plenty of time to get the flu shot this season.)
Munoz points out that while you’re asking your family about flu shots, you should also make sure they have an updated TDaP vaccine, which protects against pertussis (also known as whooping cough). “As an adult, if you get whooping cough you might be walking around with a terrible cough but otherwise you don’t feel too bad,” she explains. “If a baby gets whooping cough, he could die.” And while your mother-in-law may protest that she’s covered because she’s already had that vaccine, you can gently explain that the immunity wears off, and the CDC recommends getting a new shot every 10 years (though moms should get one in the third trimester each time they are pregnant).
Here are a few tips to make the “Vaccine or no baby!” convo easier on you and your family:
- Bring it up well before the big day: “Ideally, this is a conversation you should have with the grandparents early on, not just as they are getting in the car to meet the new baby at the hospital,” says Munoz. Explain that your doctor has strongly recommended that anyone who is going to be spending time with the baby should be up-to-date on flu vaccines and TDaP. You can forward them these guidelines for caregiver flu shots from the Centers for Disease Control and this recommendation about who needs to get the TDaP.
- Make it easy for everyone: The best way to ensure all your near and dear ones get their vaccines before they snuggle with your baby is to do the legwork for them. “Call them up and say, ‘The best gift you can give my baby is to help her stay healthy. Here’s the name of a pharmacy right near your house where you can get your flu shot,’” says Munoz. Kira Turchin, a mom of two in New York, says she always drove her children’s baby-sitter to get her flu shot, and paid the fee. “I think she really appreciated that I took that extra step,” says Turchin.
- Do your best, but don’t stress too much about it: Though in an ideal world, everyone would be fully vaccinated before they even breathed in the vicinity of your baby, the truth is that as long as you got your flu shot and TDaP when you were pregnant, your baby will also have good protection, says Munoz (she adds that if you breast-feed, you continue to protect your baby by passing on additional antibodies through your breast milk). “I would keep people away from the baby if they aren’t feeling well, and of course, they should always wash hands and practice good hygiene before holding the baby,” she says. “But by getting your own vaccines, you’ve already done your part to protect your baby.”