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COVID-19 vaccines will soon be available for babies and toddlers—here’s what the science says about whether they’re necessary

June 18, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
One unrecognizable doctor putting a patch on the little boy's shoulder after successful vaccination
What do doctors and experts say about vaccinating your child under 5 against COVID-19.
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Three years into the pandemic, children under five—the last group eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine—will soon be able to get their shots. 

This week, the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s three-dose COVID-19 vaccine for children six months through four years old, and Moderna’s two-dose vaccine for children as young as six months. 

Pfizer’s shots are dosed at 3 micrograms, which is a tenth of the dose people 12 and older receive, while Moderna’s shots are a 25 microgram dose, a quarter of that for adults. 

“Those trusted with the care of children can have confidence in the safety and effectiveness of these COVID-19 vaccines and can be assured that the agency was thorough in its evaluation of the data,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf in a public statement released Friday. 

Some have long awaited this moment as the disruption from school and daycare closures due to COVID outbreaks, have pushed parents and caregivers to the brink. 

Jackie, a mom of a three- and five-year-old living in Brooklyn, New York, is eager to vaccinate her youngest and says her family has been avoiding high-risk activities for over two years. 

“It’s a game-changer,” she says. “The school experience is going to be completely different for them. We’ve been dealing with closures and constant testing and masks. I’m hoping that this means we can ease up.” 

The authorization comes as over 13.5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. While the risks for children developing severe COVID is low, the vaccine can help protect them against getting and spreading the virus. 

“If we have enough kids that get COVID, some percentage of those will get very sick,” said Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatrician and founder of Kidcrew Medical. “The idea behind a vaccine is not only does it help prevent illness, but more importantly, it prevents severe illness. While most kids don’t get that sick with COVID, they can certainly pass the illness on to family members, loved ones, teachers, etc, that potentially could get more sick.” 

Vaccine hesitancy

While some parents feel a weight taken off their shoulders, others aren’t racing to grab the next vaccination appointment for their child. Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician based in Atlanta, and co-author of Heading Home With Your Newborn, tells her patients that the risk of a child contracting COVID outweighs the side effects of the vaccine, like pain at the injection site, irritability, and drowsiness, but says some still feel hesitant.

“There are some parents who just feel like COVID is mild in kids, which it can be, and they would just rather take their chances with letting their kids get the infection if they’re exposed,” says Shu.

Around one in five parents of children under the age of five are “eager” to get their child vaccinated right away, with roughly four out of 10 saying they are “more reluctant” to get their child vaccinated. Twenty-seven percent said they will “definitely not” get their child vaccinated and 11% said they would only do so if “required,” according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation released last month. 

“Those [hesitant] parents are probably thinking that COVID is just like a common cold, [and] it often has those same symptoms, but because it’s so new, we don’t know the long-term effects,” says Shu, who was not involved with the survey. “We don’t know if somebody’s going to have brain fog for months or years afterward, or if it can affect your heart and lungs or other parts of the body for long-term.”

Kids and long COVID

Long COVID is one of the virus’ most unknown phenomena, defined by symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, headaches and other neurological problems, among others. Pediatric experts say that while there is more research to be done, kids still are at risk for developing long COVID even if they only have mild symptoms. 

Shu notes that while COVID in children tends to be mild, it’s challenging for kids to communicate their symptoms, especially if they’ve never felt them before. “The really, really young kids can’t say,  ‘I don’t feel good,’ or ‘I have a headache,’ or ‘my chest hurts,’” says Shu. This can make it difficult to understand the effects of COVID on the nation’s youngest. 

“I think it’s hard for parents because science and research are happening as we go, and you just have to make the best decision given the information we have at that time,” Shu says. Parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their children or have questions about the vaccine should talk to their pediatrician, because they will be up to date on the latest guidance and will know their child’s history best, she adds. 

For Liz Murphy, a mother of a two-year-old in Boston, getting the news alert about vaccinating her child made her day. She’s struggled to balance her workload with childcare when the daycare sends her son home due to COVID exposure. 

“This whole time, we’ve been waiting with great anticipation for it to be available,” says Murphy.

She feels confident following the recommendations of pediatricians to vaccinate her toddler, and highlights how this will affect their day-to-day life. 

“Daycares are still, as they should be, doing a lot of precautions that are important for kids’ health, but [they’re] disruptive for working parents,” Murphy says. 

She hopes this news will make it safer for young children to be around others without as high a threat of spreading the virus. 

The Center for Disease Control still needs to endorse the authorization before they’re made available for those under five.

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