Myths About Your Baby’s Immature Immune System

Newborns and infants have immature immune systems, at least as compared to older children and adults.

Premature babies can usually get all vaccines on schedule - at their chronological age, not an adjusted age based on being a preemie.
Premature babies can usually get all vaccines on schedule – at their chronological age, not an adjusted age based on being a preemie. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

That doesn’t mean that their immune system is so immature they they can’t fight off many infections or that they shouldn’t be vaccinated. Even premature babies should usually be vaccinated on time.

Your Baby’s Immature Immune System

So just how immature is their immune system?

“A picture emerges of a child born with an immature, innate and adaptive immune system, which matures and acquires memory as he or she grows.”

Simon et al on Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age

It is immature enough that the protection that they get from passive immunity and transplacental transfer of antibodies before they are born is considered critical to protect them from many infections.

“After birth, the sudden enormous exposure to environmental antigens, many of them derived from intestinal commensal bacteria, calls for a rapid change to make distinct immune responses appropriate for early life.”

Simon et al on Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age

Fortunately, their immune system quickly matures and develops, so that as their maternal protection begins to fade, they are “better armed with the maturing innate and adaptive immune systems.”

“The risks are now much reduced by vaccinations, which stimulate protective immune responses in the maturing immune system.”

Simon et al on Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age

Getting fully vaccinated  on time helps too.

Myths About Your Baby’s Immune Response to Vaccines

Getting vaccinated?

With an immature immune system?

How does that work?

It will likely come as a surprise to some folks, but it actually works quite well!

“Although infants can generate all functional T-cells (ie, Th1, Th2, and cytotoxic T-cells), infant B-cell responses are deficient when compared with older children and adults. Infants respond well to antigens (such as proteins) that require T-cell help for development. However, until about 2 years of age, the B-cell response to T-cell-independent antigens (such as polysaccharides) is considerably less than that found in adults.”

Offit et al on Addressing Parents’ Concerns: Do Multiple Vaccines Overwhelm or Weaken the Infant’s Immune System?

In fact, we know that:

  • newborns respond well to the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine
  • the birth dose of BCG vaccine is effective at preventing severe TB disease
  • infants respond well to the vaccines in the primary series that they get at 2, 4, and 6 months
  • while infants respond well to most vaccines, to “circumvent the infant’s inability to mount T-cell-independent B-cell responses,” we use some conjugate vaccines when necessary, like Hib and Prevnar. This is especially important because their immature immune system puts them at extra risk for Hib and pneumococcal disease. Why? These are “bacteria that are coated with polysaccharides.”
  • older infants and toddlers respond to other vaccines, including MMR and the chicken pox vaccine, once maternal antibodies began to fade and can no longer cause interference.

So vaccines work in babies and young infants, just like they do for older children, teens, and adults.

But that makes you wonder, if anti-vaccine folks don’t think that vaccines work in these younger children and that their immune system is so immature, then how can these vaccines overstimulate their immune system???

They don’t.

Both the immunogencity and safety of vaccines for infants are well studied.

What to Know About Your Baby’s Immature Immune System

Vaccines work well to help protect newborns and infants as their immune system continues to develop and mature.

More About Your Baby’s Immature Immune System

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