Should My Family Get A Flu Shot To Protect My Newborn?

Grandparent holding newborn baby

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As soon as you welcome your newborn into the world, every passing cough or sniffle can feel like a threat to their fragile health. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all babies aged 6 months and over receive the seasonal influenza (flu) vaccination. Until then, you can protect your newborn from the flu by ensuring that anyone who comes into close contact with your baby receives their flu shot beforehand.

“The flu vaccine is safe and effective at decreasing numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths due to flu each year,” says Matthew Kronman, MD, MSCE, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. “Most years in the U.S., around 150-200 children die from the flu—most of these children are unvaccinated, and around half have no other medical problems. The flu vaccine is our best way to prevent these deaths from occurring each year.”

Here, we look at why it's important to protect your little one against the fly, and how you can do so.

Why It Is Important To Protect Your Newborn From The Flu

Getting the flu in adulthood can be a very unpleasant experience. But for new babies, getting the flu can leave them vulnerable to harmful complications.

“If infants do get the flu, they are at high risk for complications, such as pneumonia, dehydration due to not being able to feed well, worsening of any underlying health problems they have, ear and sinus infections, and even death,” warns Dr. Kronman.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 199 flu-related deaths among children during the flu season of 2019-2020, 12 of whom were under six months old.

While vaccination is the safest and most efficient form of protection for children against the flu, the vaccination is not approved for babies under the age of 6 months. This means for the first six months of their life, they are reliant on those around them to keep them protected. 

“As babies cannot be vaccinated until they are 6 months old, it is especially important that adults around the baby take precautions—get their flu shots, limit visitors, wash hands, and make sure that the pediatrician is called before the baby gets very ill,” says Gigi Gronvall, PhD, a professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg of Public Health and immunology expert. 

Immature immune systems (meaning that they haven't learned how to fight infection yet), lack of previous exposure, and more severe symptoms mean that babies under 6 months old are three times more likely to be hospitalized with flu-related complications than children of any other age.

Who Should Receive A Flu Shot

Create a protective barrier around your newborn by ensuring everyone in your household over the age of 6 months receives an annual flu vaccination. By getting vaccinated, you are less likely to catch the flu and are therefore less likely to pass it on to your infant.

Anyone who will be around your baby should also get the flu vaccine, advises Dr. Kronman. This includes parents, siblings, grandparents, and any other family members or friends who will be caring for your newborn. The flu vaccination can be administered via a shot or a nasal spray, depending on the type of vaccination.

When You Should Receive Your Flu Shot For Optimal Protection

Protection from a flu shot doesn’t happen immediately, so it is best to be vaccinated at least two to three weeks before meeting a new baby, says Dr. Gronvall.

However, if you get a flu shot during pregnancy, this will give the newborn a certain layer of protection. Vaccination prompts the expectant parent's immune system to create antibodies to fight the flu virus. These antibodies are then passed on to the baby.

"This protects the mother and the antibodies she makes against the flu will cross the placenta and go into the baby, protecting the infant as well," explains Dr. Kronman. As you are more likely to suffer complications from the flu during pregnancy, a flu shot will help protect both you and your baby.

How To Broach the Subject With Family Members

Although the recommendation is that anyone who comes into close contact with a newborn should receive their flu shot two to three weeks prior, the topic of vaccinations can be a polarizing subject for some families. 

To save any confusion, broach the subject well in advance of your baby's arrival. That way, you have made your expectations clear and have allowed time for any follow-up conversations. You can make the decision easier for your family members by coming to the discussion armed with the knowledge of when and where they can get their flu shot.

Finally, gently remind anyone still hesitant to get vaccinated before meeting your little one that while they might see the flu as a minor illness, it is potentially incredibly dangerous for your baby. Sharing your concerns may help them understand why getting a flu shot is important.

“It’s not a minor illness,” stresses Dr. Gronvall. “It’s especially not a minor illness for a baby. As a baby relies on adults for protection, it is an obligation for all who come into contact with the baby to do what they can to decrease the potential for harm.”

Other Ways You Can Protect Your Baby From The Flu

There are other ways to help keep your baby protected from the virus in addition to family members and friends receiving their flu vaccine.

Ask friends and relatives to wash their hands and put on a mask before coming in cuddle-distance of your little one and request that they stay away altogether if they are feeling unwell, says Dr. Kronman. The World Health Organization also recommends avoiding crowds with your newborn.

“Flu, like COVID-19, spreads through the air,” explains Dr. Gronvall. Improving air quality through ventilation (simply by opening a window), upgrading the filters for your home HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system, or investing in a HEPA [High-Efficiency Particulate Air] portable air filter, can help stem to spread of airborne viruses, such as the flu, she says.

In addition to the above measures, breastfeeding may also help protect your little one from the flu, as your antibodies can be passed to your little one through breastmilk.

A Word From Verywell

Newborn babies are incredibly vulnerable to the flu and the potential complications that go hand in hand with it, like dehydration and pneumonia. The best way you can protect your baby is to ask your extended family to get the flu shot two to three weeks before meeting them. This might not be popular with everyone, but sitting down and explaining your concerns may help.

Other protective measures include asking everyone to wash their hands before touching your baby (including you!), wearing a mask and staying away altogether if they feel unwell. Opening a window (while ensuring that your little one is warm enough) is an effective way to ventilate your home and stem the spread of all airborne viruses, including the flu.

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7 Sources
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