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Baby vaccinations and child immunisation

Doctor with baby and mother

When it comes to vaccinations it's difficult to know who feels the greatest pain – the baby who gets the jab or the parent who holds her. Here are some of the most common questions and some answers that will hopefully put your mind at ease.

It’s pretty understandable to dread vaccinations and it's natural to feel a bit fearful before your healthy baby has an injection. When she is so tiny, it can feel weirdly counter-intuitive to inject her with something to kick-start her immune system. However, the scientific evidence is firmly on the side of vaccinating your baby. Children are very, very rarely harmed by vaccines, but sadly it isn’t nearly as rare for them to be seriously or even fatally harmed by childhood diseases.

The trouble with any successful immunisation programme that has largely eradicated childhood infectious diseases is that we have all forgotten the harm these diseases can do. We think of them almost affectionately – dear old measles, funny old mumps (even the names sound rather sweet). Most parents today cannot recall the iron lungs in which people with polio spent their lives, for example.

There are risks and benefits to all things in life and doctors have to outline the risks of any vaccination your child is offered. Because vaccinations have worked and so few people get the diseases any more, it’s easy to feel that the risks of the vaccination loom large, while the risks of contracting the disease seem somehow smaller. Because it doesn't take much of a fall in immunisation levels for epidemics to flare up.

What vaccinations should my baby have and when?

Your health visitor or GP will give you a baby vaccination schedule outlining which vaccines they need, and when they should have them.

Baby having vaccination injections

Will my child have the new meningitis B vaccine?

All babies aged two months are offered the menB vaccine, followed by a second dose at four months and a booster at 12 months. There will also be a limited catch-up programme for infants who are due their three- and four-month vaccinations in September to protect them in time for when they are most at risk of meningitis B infection. You can find out more about the MenB vaccine from the NHS website. If you want to vaccinate your older child against meningitis B, you can do so privately but will have to pay for these jabs as things stand.

What happens at my baby’s vaccination appointments?

Your baby will be given a brief check up before they have their first vaccinations. The vaccinations will be postponed if your baby is suffering from diarrhoea or fever.

Let your doctor, practice nurse or health visitor know prior to immunisations if your baby has:

  • a severe egg allergy causing anaphylaxis (breathing difficulties)
  • a family history of seizures (convulsions) or allergic reactions after immunisations

Usually, a practice nurse will give your baby her vaccinations. Most vaccinations are given by injection, mouth dropper or nasal spray. The nurse will probably ask you to sit your baby on your lap and hold them close.

Many parents find it a bit upsetting but the nurse will be used to this and able to reassure you. If you think you really can’t face it then you can wait outside and ask your partner or a relative to take your baby for their vaccinations. If you ask a relative to go in your place then you will need to provide written consent. Most mums prefer to be there and are relieved to find that it’s all over very quickly.

What will happen to my baby after her jabs?

Your baby will stay in the surgery for 10 minutes, just to make sure there’s no adverse reaction. Later that evening, she might be a little irritable, have a slightly sore lump from the vaccination and may be fractious and a bit warm. If she’s old enough for Calpol you can give her that to bring down a temperature.

When my little one had her eight week vaccinations, she had a fever and slept a lot for the next day. After that, she was herself again.

As it’s common for babies to develop a fever after the MenB vaccine and first booster, the NHS recommends that you give your baby infant paracetamol suspension 120mg/5ml shortly after their MenB jabs, even if they show no signs of fever. You should give your baby three doses of 2.5ml (60mg) – the first immediately after vaccination, the second four hours later and the final dose after a further four hours.

Some children are completely fine following vaccinations while others cry and won't sleep. Give them plenty of cuddles and if you have any concerns, give your GP or health visitor a call to put your mind at rest.

Occasionally, they will react to the vaccine. The reaction, if there is one, mimics the onset time for the disease, so for measles, for example, it will take about 10 days for symptoms to develop and again these may mimic the disease, with a fever and cough.

After two to three weeks, it’s possible that the mumps vaccine will cause a slight fever and swollen glands. The rubella vaccine can sometimes result in a mild rash and raised temperature after 12 to 14 days. Bear in mind that it’s pretty rare for symptoms like this to develop, so it’s not something to fret about, but just worth being aware of so you don’t fly into a panic if you do spot a rash or other symptoms.

FAQs about baby vaccinations

The infectious diseases of childhood have been largely wiped out so why do we need to vaccinate our babies?

Improvements in socio-economic conditions have helped reduce the rate of transmission of infections and made it more likely that children will survive any infections they do get. But the real falls in rates of infections occurred when vaccines were introduced. Meningococcal C vaccine, introduced in November 1999, reduced infection rates by 75%.

In stark comparison, when immunisation rates for whooping cough fell after a scare about the vaccine in Britain in 1974, the effect was devastating – 100,000 children caught whooping cough and 36 died within the next four years.

Immunisation rates have to be high – sometimes over 90% – to avoid epidemics. Before vaccinations against diphtheria, one child died every five hours from the disease.

Also remember that you might take your child abroad – where rates of infectious diseases are often higher than in the UK and unvaccinated children are at much greater risk.

Vaccinations don't always work so why have them?

They don't always work but most have higher than 90% success rates, with many above 95 percent. What's more, if you have been vaccinated and then catch the infection you generally have a much less serious form of the illness.

Isn't it safer to have the natural form of the infection than a vaccine?

No. Rates of complications from all the diseases in their natural forms are far higher than those from vaccinations. For example:

  • The risk of inflammation of the brain (acute encephalopathy) after the MMR jab is one in a million. But for mumps infection it is one in 300 and for measles it is one in 2,000. Of those children who have swelling after contracting measles, 25% will suffer brain damage and one in 3,000 children who contract measles will die.
  • One in 2,000 children who catch measles will have inflammation of the brain – 25% of those will have brain damage and one in 3,000 children who get measles will die
  • One in 20 children who gets whooping cough may get inflammation of the brain compared with five in a million with the vaccine
The risk of catching some of the things the MMR jab prevents far outweighs any risk involved in your child having the MMR jab.

Additionally, mumps can cause sterility in men in later life, German measles can cause deafness, and you don't have to be unhealthy to start with to suffer the complications of these diseases.

Millions and millions of babies worldwide have been vaccinated and followed up for side effects. Medical opinion is that the benefits outweigh the risks many hundreds of thousands time over – but no one can decide for you. And, of course, all this is no comfort to the mother of the child who is the one in a million damaged by a vaccine.

Doctor and baby

By vaccinating your baby, can't you overload its immune system?

It's an understandable concern but the vaccines work to the same principle as when your baby is exposed to any infection – it makes antibodies. When the infection comes round again it has learnt to recognise that particular enemy and can make antibodies so quickly that the infectious agent is defeated at the doorstep. Babies are exposed to many foreign agents each day – an ordinary cold may expose your baby to between four and ten of them.

Vaccines are made to act by exposing your baby to a tiny proportion of the foreign agent so she can learn how to fight off the disease without having to suffer it. We're talking tiny bits of the foreign agent, some of which have been killed, others which have been modified to make them harmless. Babies can cope.

It's worth saying that homeopathy cannot immunise children against infectious diseases. Many homeopaths are happy to admit this and support immunisation.

Why can't my baby be let off being vaccinated if everyone else is having their baby vaccinated?

Herd immunity – as it's attractively called – does mean that children who are unvaccinated are safer than they would otherwise be because of all the children that are vaccinated.

You’re basically saying: “Everyone else is making sure my child's safe by getting their children immunised.” There will be some children who cannot be immunised because they have very low immunity due to ill health and couldn't cope with the vaccination as well as older vulnerable people who either haven’t had those vaccinations or did have them but they haven’t worked properly. So if you don’t vaccinate your child and they do pick something up, they could spread it to other, more vulnerable, people whose bodies won’t be as capable of fighting it off.

The only thing that stops a disease spreading is eradicating it. Herd immunity reduces the speed at which a disease spreads.

Also, if you holiday abroad you can't be sure those countries have herd immunity, so your child could be at much higher risk of picking something up.

What about the links with autism and inflammatory bowel disease?

There was lots of media coverage of research published in the Lancet linking autism and inflammatory bowel disease with measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

Government groups in the UK and US both found there was no evidence for these assumptions, criticising the way the studies were carried out and citing bigger studies that did not show a link.

Autism is often diagnosed at a time when babies will have recently been immunised and so it's understandable parents should link the two events. But this does not mean that one causes the other.

The Lancet study suggested that people might separate out the vaccines and give them separately. Most doctors don't think this is a good idea, however, as it would mean more visits, more jabs and more risk of catching the diseases in between.

What Mumsnetters say about vaccinations

“My grandparents talked my mum out of giving me my vaccines when I was a baby. I was seriously ill with whooping cough and hospitalised five times! It is something that my mum really regrets. I would not want any child to go through what I did just because people are scared of vaccines.”

“When my little one had her eight week vaccinations, she had a fever and slept a lot for the next day. After that, she was herself again.”

“I was utterly confused about what I should do and delayed my child's vaccinations. I now think that was a mistake and would recommend parents stick to the usual vaccination schedules. The younger kids are, the quicker they forget their vaccinations and they have less time to pick up deadly illnesses or unknowingly pass anything on.”

“Unless there is a known medical reason for not vaccinating your child, you would be putting your child, and others, at risk if you don't complete the vaccination schedule.”

“Nothing is totally safe. But unless your baby has a particular health issue, which a medical professional says makes vaccination a risk, it is far, far safer to vaccinate.”