In the last three months of pregnancy, some of your antibodies will be passed onto your baby through the placenta. The amount and type of antibodies will depend on your own immune system, most mums have low levels of antibodies. This is called ‘passive immunity’ because your baby has been ‘given’ the antibodies rather than ‘making’ them herself. Even if antibodies are passed to the baby, it is not clear how much protection they actually provide.
Unfortunately, this type of immunity is only temporary and within a few weeks of being born, the antibodies will will begin to decrease, therefore increasing the need for vaccinations.
Schedule of immunisations
On the recommendation of the Department of Health, all babies and children within the UK are offered a schedule of routine immunisations from the age of two months old (see table below). The immunisations will follow a fairly rigid schedule, which will be given to you in your ‘red book’. You may also receive reminders from your baby’s GP when they are due.
Your baby will receive their first immunisation when they are two months old because their immunity to certain diseases will have already begun to decrease. However, passive immunity to measles, mumps and rubella may last for about a year, which is why the MMR vaccine is given at or soon after your baby’s first birthday.
A flu vaccine given annually by nasal spray is also now recommended for all children aged two and three years as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.
Breastfeeding and immunity
Breastmilk also contains antibodies. The thick, yellowish milk (colostrum) that is produced in the first few days after birth is particularly rich in antibodies and babies who are breastfed will have passive immunity against gastro intestinal and some respiratory illnesses.
Premature babies and immunisations
Premature babies are born with fewer antibodies as they’ve had less time to absorb them from their mum's placenta. As a result, they face a higher risk of developing illness. Premature babies, and other babies considered to be in high risk groups, will be offered immunisation against certain illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Your doctor will be able to advise you on which immunisations your child should receive.
Risks versus benefits
Some parents decide not to immunise their children for various reasons. Choosing not to immunise is as much your right as choosing to immunise; but it is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Some parents decide against immunising their child because they are worried about the side effects. The most common reactions include redness or swelling where the needle went in; some irritability, baby feeling unwell, or having a slight temperature. These symptoms usually resolve fairly quickly. More severe side effects include an allergic reaction, which is usually a rash or itching that affects part or all of baby’s body or an anaphylactic reaction. This is when baby might experience breathing difficulties and in some cases, collapse. Both of these reactions are very rare and the people who give immunisations are trained to deal with this situation and as long as they are treated quickly, the child will make a full recovery.
In the UK, diseases are prevented by high immunisation rates. Immunisations don’t only protect your child, they also protect your family and community along with children who, for medical reasons, can’t have the immunisation.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Further information on immunisation for children can be found at NHS Choices.
Healthtalkonline.org, shares people’s experiences of health and illness based on qualitative research, posts a wide range of information on immunisation.