Babies exposed to measles have a higher risk of complications. When do babies get the measles vaccine, and what can parents do to protect them from the contagious virus?

A measles information sheet is seen posted at the Orange County Health Department on May 6, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.
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| Credit: A measles information sheet is seen posted at the Orange County Health Department on May 6, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.

Although the measles virus was technically eradicated 20 years ago, outbreaks occasionally pop up across the country. Early measles symptoms resemble a cold—and a few days later, the classic rash appears on the head and body. 

The highly contagious disease proves dangerous for everyone, but babies have a higher risk of serious and life-threatening complications. These include pneumonia, ear infections, and encephalitis (brain inflammation) associated with permanent brain damage. Two to three people per 1,000 people will die after contracting measles.

Newborns have some measles immunity from antibodies received in their mother’s womb. But this immunity varies for everyone, and it pretty much disappears when the baby reaches 9 months old

"A newborn's immunity is definitely strongest right after birth, but the protection wanes over the subsequent months," summarizes David L. Hill, M.D., a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of Dad To Dad: Parenting Like A Pro. That’s why the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is vital for preventing the spread of this deadly illness. 

So when do babies get the MMR vaccine, and how can parents protect their little one in the meantime? Here’s everything you need to know about measles in newborns.

When Do Babies Get the Measles Vaccine?

The current immunization schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the MMR vaccine for babies at 12 to 15 months, with a second dose given at 4 to 6 years. 

But updated guidelines now allow younger babies to get the MMR vaccine if they are traveling outside the country. So if you are planning an international trip, any baby between 6 and 11 months old should get one dose of the MMR vaccine before departure from the United States.

If there is a major measles outbreak in a specific area, it's possible that local health departments may recommend babies as young as 6 months old get the vaccine, says David Kimberlin, M.D., co-director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Division of Pediatrics Infectious Diseases at Children's of Alabama. "The vaccine is safe in these very young babies, but does not work as well as it does in older babies," he says. Furthermore, he adds, "If a baby gets the measles shot between 6 and 12 months of age, he or she still needs two additional doses at the regular time."

How Family Vaccinations Can Prevent Measles in Infants

You can also prevent measles by ensuring those around your infant are vaccinated. Babies are best protected by “cocooning,” which means that everyone they come in contact with (parents, grandparents, siblings, caregivers) is up-to-date on their vaccination schedule. 

First, parents and grandparents who haven’t gotten the MMR vaccine should receive it, if necessary. Keep in mind that anyone born before 1957 is considered to be immune to measles. "The disease affected everyone back then, before we had the vaccine," so they’re likely immune by now, says Dr. Kimberlin. If you received two MMR doses as a child or an adult, you don't need to get vaccinated again—but if you're unable to verify your vaccinations, there's no risk in getting a booster shot.

Also, any siblings in a household who are not vaccinated can "catch up" on immunity with two MMR doses at least four weeks apart. It's never too late to get the MMR vaccine. In fact, it still provides immunization if received within three days of measles exposure.

Measles Prevention in Public Places

Although cocooning your baby has its benefits, it doesn’t completely protect him from measles. "Any place where large numbers of people congregate and there are a number of international visitors—like airports, shopping malls, and tourist attractions—you may be more likely to find measles, which should be considered if you are not vaccinated," states Gil Chavez, M.D. State Epidemiologist and Deputy Director, Center for Infectious Diseases, California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

Even less-crowded places close to home can be worrisome. "If I lived in a community with a low vaccination rate, I would think hard before bringing my infant to birthday parties, day-care centers, or other places that might be frequented by unvaccinated children," says Dr. Hill. "The virus can linger in the air as long as two hours, so just avoiding susceptible children may not be enough."

Always make sure to contact your pediatrician immediately for the best course of action.