Immunisation for Babies & Toddlers

In the first years of life, a baby's immune system is not fully developed. Immunisations help give babies a better chance of fighting off infections from specific diseases during this early stage of growth.

Immunisation is one of the most effective ways to protect children and adults against many diseases.  Just like water sanitation and clean air controls, immunisation is designed to support the health of every individual within a community and prevent sickness. 

Communicable diseases are ones which are caused by viruses or bacteria and which are easily spread from person to person. Vaccines provide the best method of protecting children and adults from becoming sick and spreading many contagious diseases. 

Vaccination or Immunisation

What’s the difference? 

The words vaccination and immunisation are often used interchangeably. To be precise, vaccination refers to the person being given an injection or drops in the mouth. Immunisation means both receiving the vaccine and then becoming immune to the disease.

How do Vaccines Work?

Vaccines work by stimulating a person’s immune system to create a defence response to an infection. Vaccines are created by using small amounts of killed or altered (attenuated) bacteria or viruses. These cannot cause the infection but ‘turn on’ the body’s defence mechanism to respond in a protective way. The benefit of vaccination and being exposed in a controlled way to the germs which cause the disease is that there is a much lower risk of complications. 

If a person comes in contact with the disease in the future, they are much less likely to get it if they’ve been vaccinated. Their body’s natural defence mechanism responds to it quickly and stops the person from getting sick. Sometimes they do get a very mild form of the disease, but their chances of developing complications are reduced. They also recover much more quickly.  

What is Herd Immunity?

Vaccination protects individuals and those who are too young to be vaccinated. Herd immunity is an important way to stop the spread of a contagious disease within a population. If enough people have been vaccinated and are immune to a disease, this stops the spread of vaccine preventable disease. 

Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP)

The Australian Government provides free vaccines against 17 diseases. Fifteen of these are particularly important in childhood because of their severity and high risk of complications. The NIP recommends specific vaccines are given at different times of a child’s life. They are a series of vaccines which are timed to offer the best protection at the optimum age. 

There are also some vaccines which aren’t covered by the NIP and which are available through GPs and immunisation clinics. These are not free and need to be paid for by parents or caregivers.

When a baby/child receives a vaccine through the NIP their details are recorded on The Australian Immunisation Register which helps health professionals and researchers understand how protected the population is against vaccine preventable diseases. 

Parents can also request details about their child’s immunisation history from Medicare

Immunisation schedule

Birth
  • An injection for hepatitis B (usually offered in hospital).
  • The greatest benefit is if given within 24 hours after birth and must be given within 7 days.
    2 months
    • A combined injection for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis), hepatitis B, polio, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b).
    • An injection for pneumococcal.
    • Oral drops for rotavirus (6-14 weeks of age).
    • These vaccines may be given from 6 weeks of age.
      4 months
      • A combined injection for diphtheria, tetanus,  whooping cough (pertussis), hepatitis B, polio, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b)
      • An injection for pneumococcal
      • Oral drops for rotavirus (10-24 weeks of age).
        6 months
        • A combined injection for diphtheria, tetanus,  whooping cough (pertussis), hepatitis B, polio, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b)
        • An injection for pneumococcal (medically at-risk children, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in high risk areas (QLD, NT, WA and SA)).
          12 months
          • A combined injection for measles, mumps, rubella
          • An injection for meningococcal ACWY
          • An injection for pneumococcal
          • An injection for hepatitis A (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in high risk areas (QLD, NT, WA and SA)).                      
            18 months
            • An injection for Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
            • A combined injection for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox (varicella)
            • A combined injection for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis)
            • An injection for hepatitis A (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in high risk areas (QLD, NT, WA and SA)).                      

            Additional immunisations recommended for all babies and toddlers

            Babies and toddlers may also be recommended to be immunised against these diseases if they haven’t already and are old enough to be immunised. The vaccines must typically be paid for out of pocket. Please speak to your doctor to learn more.

            Influenza (flu)

            This highly contagious viral infection can affect anyone and can lead to serious illness. A flu vaccine is recommended annually for all people aged 6 months and over.

            Influenza vaccine is funded under the NIP for those at or above 6 months of age with certain medical conditions and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to under 5 years and those aged at or above 15 years.

            Meningococcal ACWY

            This rare infection can progress rapidly, causing serious long-term disability or death within 24 hours. Immunisation can help protect against common strains.

            The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. A free dose is given at 12 months of age. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate.

            Meningococcal B

            This rare infection can progress rapidly, causing serious long-term disability or death within 24 hours. Immunisation can help protect against common strains.

            The meningococcal B vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate.

            Extra vaccines for medically at-risk children

            Some children are considered to be at higher risk of getting particular diseases and complications from them. When a child is considered to be at higher risk of contracting a vaccine preventable disease, they may be eligible for free vaccine/s.

            Children more at risk:

            • Children travelling overseas. Speak with your vaccination provider about individual risk and the countries you’re travelling to.
            • Premature babies and children.
            • Children with chronic diseases and/or, those with medical conditions which affect their immune system or who have chronic lung or heart conditions.
            • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

            Why do children have so many vaccines?

            Because their immune system is immature and they do not have the natural defence mechanisms that older children and adults do.  They simply do not have well developed, stable and robust immune mechanisms, which makes them particularly at risk of contracting communicable diseases. 

            Children are vulnerable in all sorts of ways, but particularly their resistance to disease.

            During pregnancy babies receive maternal antibodies, giving them protection for the first couple of months after birth. Immunisations take over this role as the antibodies start to wear off. 

            Some diseases are covered by only one vaccine though most require several in a course to provide long lasting immunity. Polyvalent vaccines are one way that many diseases can be covered in one injection. 

            The vaccinations given in childhood are known as the primary course of immunisations. Some of these need to be “topped up” via boosters at regular intervals throughout life e.g. whooping cough and tetanus. If a child does not complete the full course of immunisations they will only be partially protected.

            Is immunisation compulsory?

            In Australia, immunisation is not compulsory but not having your child fully vaccinated may affect Government benefits or enrolment in childcare or kindergarten. Immunisation is strongly recommended for two reasons:

            • it helps protect your child or yourself from potentially serious diseases
            • high rates of immunisation also help protect those who cannot be immunised (for example, those with a weakened immune system).

            What are the common side effects of immunisations?

            Some side effects may occur after immunisation. Most are mild, short-lived and clear within a few days.

            Common side effects can include:

            • a sore arm
            • fever
            • pain and redness at the injection site.

            Severe side effects like an allergic reaction are rare. If you think your baby is experiencing a severe reaction, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

            Can too many immunisations overwhelm a baby's immune system?

            From birth onwards, babies are naturally exposed to thousands of bacteria, viruses and antigens (which are substances that stimulate an immune response). They build up their exposure through things like playing, drinking and eating.

            Compared to this everyday exposure, immunisations contain a small amount of antigen. So rather than overwhelming the baby’s immune system, immunisations actually help strengthen it for specific diseases.

            Do breast-fed babies need immunisations?

            The antibodies in breast milk help fight off infection and provide some protection for your baby. However, they are short-lived and are not enough to help protect against all infections – which is why it’s recommended that all babies receive the vaccines on the National Immunisation Program schedule, regardless of whether they are breastfed or not.

            Where to have your child vaccinated:
            • A community health centre. Not all centres provide a vaccination service so check first.
            • Local government/council vaccination centres. 
            • Your GP. You may need to pay a consultation fee though the vaccine should be free. 
            • Specialist immunisation centres
            • Some children’s hospitals provide vaccination services.

            Check first if the centre or GP you plan to go to for your child’s vaccinations only offer vaccination services on specific days.

            Can my child still get a disease despite being immunised for it?

            Like all medicines, vaccines are not 100% effective. Therefore, there may still be a chance that an immunised person can get the disease – although usually with less severe symptoms than if they’d had no immunisation.

            Don’t forget, the chances of exposure to a disease are reduced in communities where most people are immunised.

            For more information:

            Immunise Australia

            National Immunisation Program Schedule

            Check with your GP, Child Health Nurse or Community Health Centre

            Written by: Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse