Moms were made to worry. You spend 40 weeks (give or take) stressing about your pregnancy and hoping baby is developing properly; then with delivery, pregnancy worries dissipate and are immediately replaced with anxiety for baby’s health and continued well-being. Luckily, Mother Nature lends a hand.
Stocking up in utero
A mother’s immune system is populated by disease-fighting antibodies accumulated over a lifetime of battling various illnesses, as well as by antibodies created in response to any vaccinations she has received. During her pregnancy, these antibodies make their way across the placenta and into her growing baby’s body. This way, her bundle of joy is not utterly defenseless at birth but arrives with a buffer of protection against many routine illnesses.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP, executive director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog, says, “New research finds that as mom gets vaccines while pregnant (i.e., flu vaccine or Tdap vaccine), she develops antibodies to ward off infections that also pass along to baby.”
So, if you’re pregnant and considering a seasonal flu shot, do it! The vaccine will guard you from the misery of getting sick while pregnant, and baby will also develop immunity to the current flu strain—immunity she can carry with her after birth, when she’s still too young to get a flu shot of her own.
The Tdap vaccine is the adult dose inoculation against whooping cough (aka pertussis). It has received extra emphasis in the medical community as whooping cough has regained prevalence in recent years. (Did you know 2012 was the worst year for pertussis in the United States since 1955?)
The Tdap vaccine is recommended between weeks 27 and 36 of pregnancy. This should give your body enough time to create antibodies and pass them on to baby before she is potentially exposed to the illness, which can be fatal for infants. Because whooping cough antibodies decrease over time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges, “Even if you have been sick with whooping cough in the past or previously received the vaccine, you still should get the vaccine during each pregnancy.”
It’s good while it lasts
The passive antibodies baby gains from her mother in utero do not last forever, but, according to Swanson, “These antibodies … typically are thought to protect infants for up to 6 months or more.” Because newborns are too young to be vaccinated and their immune systems aren’t quite ready to effectively produce antibodies on their own, this hand-me-down protection from mom is essential.
The immunization timeline recommended by the CDC has been developed to give baby the best protection as soon as her body is ready for it, building her up as her inherited protection is waning.
If mom is breastfeeding, baby gets many more immunity benefits. “Breastfed babies are protected against many, if not all, of the diseases to which their mothers are immune,” says Swanson.
The protection comes in the form of antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, which are passed through the breast milk from mother to child. The antibodies bind to potential pathogens and keep them away from the infant’s cells. Mom also produces special antibodies to fight against specific factors in her immediate environment. Because she and her little one share the same quarters, these special antibodies are extra valuable.
Antimicrobial enzymes, which help stave off “bad bacteria” and leave “good bacteria” alone, can be found in mom’s milk, too.
According to Swanson, “It is because of this significant boost in immunity that breastfed babies have been shown to get sick less often, suffer from fewer ear infections and experience less severe symptoms when they do get sick.”
It pays to be cautious, especially during flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) season. Although baby does have antibodies stored up from her time in utero, as well as those passed on through breast milk, the prudent parent will still do all she can to shield baby from contact with transferable illnesses. Your doctor may advise you against taking baby out in public too often while flu and RSV are rampant. You can also add a level of protection by limiting guests and making sure those who do come around have had flu and Tdap shots at least two weeks before greeting your new arrival. You may feel rude requesting this of close friends and family, but they will hopefully understand that you are doing your best to defend your infant’s health.
Guests should be in good health when they come over, and hand-washing is a must. If you have other children or additional members in your household, make sure they’re caught up on vaccines before baby is born.