How to Protect Your Baby From Whooping Cough

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portrait of African American mother holding sleeping child

As you wait to welcome your new baby into the world, there’s plenty to do to prepare. You might spend an entire weekend decorating the nursery, putting together the crib, and baby-proofing the kitchen cabinets. But that’s not all that needs to happen before your baby is born. To keep your newborn safe and healthy, it’s imperative to protect him or her from contracting whooping cough, also known as pertussis.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease. Since the 1940s, Americans have received vaccinations against whooping cough, saving countless lives. But unfortunately, about 20,000 Americans still contract whooping cough every year, and it can be fatal in vulnerable populations. From 2008 to 2011, 72 Americans died from whooping cough—and 83% of those were babies younger than three months old.

Why Babies Are Susceptible to Whooping Cough

Children under three months old haven’t yet received their whooping cough vaccine, known as the DTaP shot. They won’t be fully immunized until they’ve reached one year old. This means they’re quite vulnerable to this highly contagious disease during this time window. And while most Americans receive the vaccination as children, immunity tends to wear off over time. Older adults like parents, grandparents and other family members are at risk of carrying whooping cough without knowing it, and then passing it on to an unprotected child. Whooping cough spreads when infected people cough or sneeze while in close contact with others. In adults, whooping cough tends to be mild, although severe coughing (recognized as a “whooping” sound) can last for weeks. But in children who haven’t been vaccinated, whooping cough can be much more serious and potentially deadly. About half of babies less than one year old who contract whooping cough are hospitalized. Whooping cough can cause grave consequences in children this young, including pneumonia, breathing problems, neurological complications, dehydration, and more. And often, older people are found to be the source of the infection for children.

What Parents Can Do to Prevent Whooping Cough

There are three main things parents can do to protect their new babies from contracting whooping cough. First, mothers should get the whooping cough vaccine booster, known as Tdap, during every pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend pregnant women get the shot between the 27th and 36th week of each pregnancy—and the earlier, the better. When a mother receives the vaccine, her body produces protective antibodies against whooping cough. Some of these antibodies are passed along to the baby before birth, providing a short-term shield.

However, this protection doesn’t last long and isn’t always 100% effective. That’s why adults who haven’t received a Tdap booster shot should get one at least two weeks before coming into contact with a baby under a year old. Those two weeks give the body time to build protection against whooping cough so individuals won’t unknowingly catch it and pass it along.

Lastly, it’s important to give your child the DTaP vaccination according to the recommended schedule. Babies will receive the DTaP vaccine in several doses to build up high levels of protection. Your child will get the first shot at 2 months old, again at 4 months, and then again at 6 months. He or she will need a booster shot at 15 through 18 months, and then another between 4 and 6 years old to maintain protection—five shots in all. The CDC also recommends an additional dose of Tdap for children once they reach 11 or 12 years old.

We’re fortunate that, today, whooping cough is a vaccine-preventable disease. But before your baby can be immunized against whooping cough, it’s up to you to provide the protection he or she needs.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Jun 7
  1. Help Protect Babies from Whooping Cough. Centers for Disease
    Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/features/pertussis/index.html
  2. Pertussis Outbreak Trends. Centers for Disease Control and
    Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/outbreaks/trends.html
  3. Pertussis Fast Facts. Centers for Disease Control and
    Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/fast-facts.html
  4. Epidemiology
    and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and
    Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/pert.html










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