Books For Tweens & Teens

Parenting a tweenager (around 9-12 years old), when puberty begins can be a stressful time for the whole household, with hormones running rampant, bodies sprouting hair, new smells, and kids trying to figure out what is normal. Below is a list of books (with information about them below each one) for you and /or your child to read during this time, to help everyone out.

Some more tips before having “the talk” with your child (or any talk, really):

  • Try to be calm and open about the topic (pay attention to your body language and tone of voice).
  • Avoid shame.
  • Accept & support their feelings.
  • Set rational and consistent limits.
  • Encourage your child to ask you questions, and to learn that coming to you with their thoughts is never bad.

THE BOOKS

  • “Everything You NEVER Wanted Your Kids To Know About Sex (but were afraid they’d ask)” by Richardson & Schuster

This is really the best book for parents to read on the subject. It tackles every stage of development, as well as other topics, such as homosexuality. I recommend starting to read this book when your child is young, although it’s never too late to learn.

  •  “The Care & Keeping of YOU 1: The Body Book for Younger Girls” by Natterson, from AmericanGirl

This is the most popular puberty book in the market. My tween patients report that they love this book. It goes over what to expect in puberty, and how to take care of girls’ changing bodies. It is full of illustrations. Rated age 8-10, this book is best before puberty really starts. Once puberty is in full swing, the 2nd version of this book is better (see below).

  •  “The Care & Keeping of YOU 2: The Body Book for Older Girls” by Natterson, from AmericanGirl

Rated age 10-12, this book is the second in the series, not a newer version of the first. It is for girls with some understanding of puberty, who need more details. It goes over the physical and emotional changes of puberty, but also practicalities, such as how to insert a tampon. It still has a simple writing style and lots of illustrations, so it is not recommended for older teenagers.

  •  “Guy Stuff: the Body Book for Boys” by Natterson

This is the boy’s equivalent book to the popular girl version “The Care and Keeping of YOU 1” mentioned above. It is rated age 9-12, but having read it, I think it is more for 8-10 year olds. Every page is full of illustrations, and it covers just the basics of puberty: changing body, changing voice, mood, bullying, shaving, eating well, exercising, but not sex. Unfortunately, there is no part 2 for older boys.

  • “Boy’s Guide to Becoming a Teen” by Middelman & Pfeifer, from The American Medical Association

This is the book I like to use for older tween and teen boys. It has simple, but thorough, medically accurate information about growing, puberty, and sex. There is a chapter on masturbation. There are still some cartoonish pictures and it does not go into a lot of detail, so it is probably best for ages 10-13.

  • “Let’s Talk About S-E-X” by Gitchell & Foster, from Planned Parenthood

Rated for ages 9-12, this book is meant to be read by tweens and their parents, to help with understanding and open discussion. The end of many sections have questions to open discussion and learn. The end of the book has a section to help parents talk to their kids about sex. It also lists websites for tweens, teens, and parents, to further the discussion, with good, age-appropriate information. Despite the name of the book, it does not go into depth about sex, but does provide basic, medically accurate information, without shame. I highly recommend this book for all families with kids starting puberty.

  • “A Smart Girl’s Guide: Knowing What to Say: Finding the Words to Fit Any Situation” by Criswell, from AmericanGirl

Tips, techniques, and actual suggested conversations for how to handle more than 200 situations common for tweens. Rated age 8-12. Helps kids handle real life. Part of the Smart Girls series, but good for all genders.

  • “A Smart Girl’s Guide: Drama, Rumors & Secrets: Staying True to Yourself” by Holyoke, from AmericanGirl

Reviews indicate younger kids and those starting middle school tend to get the most out of this, but a lot of the book talks about social media or phone etiquette, which may not be useful to younger girls. Rated age 8-12. Best read by both tweens and their parents, to help open up discussion, as well as help kids with the drama they may face at school. My only critique is that this is written for girls, when it could be written regardless of gender.

  •  “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health” by Harris & Emberley

This book is rated for age 10 and up, and is the best selling book in “children’s sexuality” on Amazon, but it is not my favorite. It has a lot of information, including topics such as birth control and abortion, but still uses cartoons, which may make it unappealing to older kids. It is good for younger tweens, if you do not mind them reading about all topics on sexuality, and want to discuss it with them afterwards.

For books recommendations for younger children, please see my previous blog post on the topic: Private Parts.

For information on protecting your child from sexual abuse, as well as talking about sex, I recommend The Mama Bear Effect

For families of trans youth, I recommend starting with The TransYouth Family Allies, as well as the resources from one of  the large trans youth centers at most major children’s hospitals. Here in Los Angeles, both CHLA and UCLA have centers to help trans children. 

Note: cover photo borrowed from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-difficult-subjects

A Spoon-full of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

Lots of parents have trouble getting their children to take medicine, so here are some tips to help:

Some techniques to help medicine go down easier:

Marry Poppins was right- a spoon-full of sugar helps the medicine go down! More accurately, a spoon-full of chocolate syrup will cover up the taste of most yucky medications. Apple sauce and yogurt are other common foods used to mask bad tastes. Many medications can be made to taste like your child’s favorite flavor by the pharmacist before you even pick it up, so ask about this when you submit your prescription. Some medications come in “orally dissolving tablets” which kids (age 3 and older) can put in their mouth and they will dissolve without having to chew or swallow.

Liquid meds are often easiest to give to babies with a syringe (a tube that looks like shot, but does NOT have a needle on it), which you can get at any pharmacy, baby store, or from your physician. Squirt small amounts of medication into your baby’s cheek and they’ll usually swallow it. Don’t squirt it directly onto their tongue or into the back of their throat, as this can lead to gagging. Follow-up with breast milk or formula (whatever they normally drink), before giving the next part of the dose. Alternatively, you can put the liquid medication in a bottle nipple along with a little breast milk/formula, and have them suck directly from the nipple, without the bottle attached. I do not recommend mixing the medication in a whole bottle, unless you know the baby will take the whole thing regardless of taste.

Most baby stores also sell special devices to help kids swallow medications,such as something that looks like a bottle, but keeps the medication separate, so you know exactly how much the child takes. I do not recommend giving children medications with droppers, because it’s difficult to measure the amount you’re giving, difficult to get all of the medication out of the dropper, and difficult to clean and dry the dropper fully between each use.

Learning how to swallow pills:

Once your child is ready to swallow pills (often by age 5!), it’s a great help to teach them how, since many medications are easier to take in pill form, the older they get, the bigger the dose, and some medications are not available in liquid/ chewable form. Starting young can also be beneficial in preventing anxiety associated with swallowing pills. Adolescents and adults often have trouble swallowing pills because they fear that the pill will get stuck in their throats. Relaxation techniques and deep breathing can help. Looking in a mirror, sticking your tongue out, and saying “aaah” out loud (this lifts the palate so you can see your throat), can help people see that their throat is much bigger then the pill, and ease some of the anxiety.

The first step in learning how to swallow a pill is to practice with something that is NOT medication. I recommend starting with small, smooth, round candies (such as mini m&m’s), and progressing to slightly larger candies (such as regular m&m’s). People with anxiety may want to start with tiny candies, such as sprinkles. Other people prefer to start with tiny bread balls (made from mashing a tiny piece of bread between your fingers), and go progressively bigger, since the bread dissolves easily in the throat. You will also need a big glass of water, juice, or carbonated beverage (such as plain soda water, which the pill can float on).

Younger kids can be told to just try swallowing the candy without chewing, because they are often successful without thinking about it. Older children, or those without a natural tendency to swallowing whole pieces, can start by visualizing the item floating down their throat on water, like a little boat. They should start by making sure the mouth is moist, by salivating or taking a sip of their drink. Nest place the candy as far back on the tongue as possible, using the teeth to scrape the candy to the back of the tongue (a mirror helps some people see how far back it is). Then take a big gulp of the liquid, which should float the candy and allow it to be swallowed, just as you would usually swallow any regular drink. Some children will swallow the candy (and later pills) more easily by drinking the liquid through a straw.

When it comes to taking real medicine, some people hide their pills in mini-marshmallows, which are slippery when wet, and therefore easier to swallow. I recommend trying this without medication first, since these are bigger then most pills. You can also try covering the pills in chocolate syrup, applesauce, yogurt, or jam (but see the warnings below before trying that).

I suggest experimenting with these techniques in a relaxed environment until you find something that works for you.

Warnings:

These techniques are for generally healthy children, with normal anatomy and mentation! They should not be used for children with any anatomical abnormalities, dysphagia (trouble swallowing regular foods or drinks), or any medical conditions that effect swallowing, the head/face, the GI system, or the neurological system.

All children should be supervised when practicing swallowing candies, and when taking ANY medication. NEVER tell your child that the medication is candy, as this can cause them to sneak some more when you’re not looking (many medications these days actually do taste like candy). Always keep medications (over the counter and prescription) and vitamins/ supplements out of reach AND in a LOCKED container. Kids are good at climbing and getting into high cabinets, purses, closets, and other hiding places.

Please speak to your pharmacist (who is usually in the back of the store, who has spent at least 5 years in post-graduate university studies, getting a doctorate degree in pharmacy), about what you can take your medication with, and whether you can cut, crush, chew, or open the medication. Many medications should NOT be taken with grapefruit juice. Some medications should NOT be taken with anything dairy. Some pills can be crushed and mixed with foods, where as others can not. Your pharmacist and/ or physician are the best people to speak to before taking your medication with anything but water.

Traveling With Children

Fortunately for us modern moms and dads, anywhere we want to go is just a plane, train, or automobile ride away. Despite the conveniences of modern transit, traveling with children can be a difficult endeavor if you’re not prepared. So here are a few tips to make your journey smoother:

1) Know your rights.

This sounds funny, but a lot has recently changed in U.S.A. airport security rules. For example children under 12 do not need to remove their shoes during screening. According to the TSA’s website, you may carry as much juice and milk for toddlers as you “need until you reach your destination”. The precise definition of how much you need varies by who is screening you at security.  During one trip with my then 1 year old, the security agent at LAX insisted that 3 small juice boxes was too much for a 5 hour flight, and threw all of our drinks away. I did not know enough to argue and instead I spent $$$ buying some non-dilute juice for my child at the airport 🙁 This also brings up the point to remember to be flexible, and give yourself extra time for the unexpected.

For the latest information, check out the TSA website. For information on car seat travel rights, see this post by TheCarSeatLady.

2) Know your company.

Certain airlines and hotel chains are better at hosting children than others. Conversely, some airlines have recently banned children from first class on their flights, so don’t expect an upgrade (or even friendly service) on those airlines. In general, European and Asian companies are considered friendlier to children on flights than North American airlines, often providing coloring books, special snacks, small toys, and other treats for families.

Some airlines offer pre-boarding for families with infants and toddlers, while others have none. This may be more annoying than you think. When traveling with our then 2 year old, we had to wait until first class, business class, and everyone with a silver/gold card from the airline boarded (more than half of the passengers) before we were allowed to get on with a toddler, car seat, and hand luggage. Trying to get past the tiny aisle with people everywhere and a large car seat was not fun, and I think it disturbed the other passengers as well. Allowing us to board early, install the carseat and settle in would have prevented a lot of hassle for everyone. However, when we got to our destination we stayed at a hotel that provided us with squeaky bath toys and other amenities in the room that made us feel like family.

Check out this article on the most family friendly airlines.

 

3) More tips just for flying with children:

– Try and book a flight with as few stops as possible, as take-off, landing, and boarding are the toughest times.

– Make sure you have assigned seats together in advance. Many companies have been separating families on flights, and then you rely on your fellow passengers to switch seats so you can sit together, or charge extra money to seat families together (but a July 2016 ruling by Congress outlawed this for kids under 13 years old). This LA Times article gives tips on how to stay together.

– I take our car seat when flying with my son, to make sure he is strapped in securely during our flight (even turbulence can be dangerous to a lap child). This also ensures that he has a safe seat for automobile travel when we arrive at our destination. It is also easier for him to fall asleep during the flight in his car seat, and more difficult for him to annoy other passengers by kicking them or climbing on the chairs. We use a GoGo Kidz Travelmate to turn the car seat into a stroller at the airport. Booster seats are not necessary (or allowed) on flights, since there are no chest straps.

excited by the stuff he sees through the window
My son sitting in his carseat happily staring out the plane window

– To avoid pain from the changes in pressure in the ear during flights, teenagers and adults can chew gum or drink water to encourage swallowing, and thereby open up the eustachian tubes in their ears to relieve the pressure. For babies the best way to do this is breast or formula feeding. Breast or formula feeding has the added bonus of being a natural pain reliever. For toddlers, diluted juice in a straw cup works well. Older children can suck on lollipops to get them swallowing (and happy and distracted by candy). Nasal sprays can also help relieve congestion and prevent pain during the flight, but speak to your pediatrician about this (salt water sprays can help babies with stuffy noses, while kids with ear infections or sinus problems may need a prescription nasal spray). If all this ear tube talk is confusing, check out the ear anatomy pics on my pinterest page.

– I recommend waiting as long as possible before flying with infants. The younger an infant is, the less developed their immune system, and the more likely they are to get sick. The air on airplanes is re-circulated so it is very easy to pick up germs from other travelers, even ones who are seated far away from you. Infants younger than 2 months old who catch an illness with fever may have to undergo extensive testing, including blood, urine, and spinal fluid exams if they get sick. I know this is not possible for many families, but waiting until your infant is 9 months or older can save you a lot of hassle.

I advise checking the CDC travel web page, and making an appointment with your pediatrician at least 2 months before any foreign travel, so you can get any needed vaccinations or medications for your trip. You can also check out travel clinics in Los Angeles.

4) Have your bags packed with items that will keep your child calm, quiet and comfortable. 

I prefer small, light items. If you are used to distracting your child with your phone or other electronic items, keep in mind that you will not be able to use them on take-off or landing, and they might run out of batteries on long car trips, so make sure to pack low-tech items as well. I recommend packing a carry-on or car bag with:

  • baby wipes (good for cleaning up messes for kids of all ages, cleaning up yourself, and cleaning up icky surfaces)
  • snacks
  • your own sippy cups or bottles
  • more diapers than you think you need
  • several different sizes of ziplock bags (for messes, soiled clothes, soiled diapers, and they are just generally handy to have)
  • a medical bag (children’s acetaminophen, children’s ibuprofen, children’s benadryl, disinfectant, bandaids)
  • sunscreen (the sun through a car’s windows can burn a child, and then sun through a plane’s window has more radiation than down on the ground, so slather yourself and your child with sunscreen to avoid sunburns and -much later- skin cancer)
  • lollipops for older kids
  • extra clothes (even for older children, as it’s easy to get spilled-on during a flight or car trip, and you never know if, when or where you’ll get stuck)
  • books
  • re-usable stickers
  • dry-erase crayons/markers and board
  • a soft blanket
  • your child’s lovey (favorite blankey, stuffed animal, or other comfort item).

I’ve linked to a few of these items, as well as book suggestions, on pinterest.

Eat Pack Go has many more great travel tips, and the link is for a funny story illustrating why you shouldn’t feel bad about that huge carry on with extra supplies.

Traveling with children can be more stressful than traveling alone, but with patience, planning, and a large bag it can be a fabulous adventure.

Vaccine Science Made Simple

This is a guest post by Kimberly Mulligan, PhD from the department of biological sciences at California State University Sacramento

Hi parents! Scientist here. I decided to write a long post about vaccines to help shed some light on how vaccines work and, hopefully, bring some clarity to topics of debate. The amount of misinformation about vaccines feels a little out of control to me. And no matter what you think about vaccines, it’s tough to wade through this information without a scientific background. FYI, my science background: PhD in developmental biology from Stanford University, postdoctoral research at UCSF on the molecular basis of brain development with an emphasis on a group of genes implicated in autism and other neuropsychiatric disorders, and I just joined the faculty at CSUS this January where I teach molecular cell biology and will have a research program focused on the molecular basis of neurodevelopment and neuropsychiatric illness. Ok, on to the fun stuff.  (It’s long because I wanted to be comprehensive and address all of the questions I usually get about vaccines.)

First, I ask that you read this with an open mind.  Having an open mind is an integral quality of good scientists – it is the only way to objectively analyze data. (Open minds are wise minds!) I also want to add that this debate gets nasty, but in the end we all love our kids and want what’s best for them (as a mama of two, I get that).  I am not judging, I do not feel that is my place as a scientist – my place as a scientist is to arm you with information and help you better understand that information.

Important vocabulary: pathogen = disease-causing bacteria or virus

Q: Ok, so what are vaccines? (I feel like this very basic question is often not clearly answered.) 

A: Usually they are viruses or bacteria that have been modified so they cannot hurt you, but still look like pathogens to your immune system. That part is key. When a weakened pathogen (or “acelluar” pieces of a pathogen) enters your body your immune system responds by making antibodies that will bind specifically to that pathogen, and target it for destruction. Here’s the really cool part – our immune system makes cells called memory B cells that will stay in our body for a really long time (depending on how strong the vaccine is). These memory B cells are primed to make antibodies specific for that pathogen if you were to get infected again. This is important because our immune response can take a long time – long enough for pathogens to have debilitating and sometimes lethal consequences. If you have those B cells ready to go, your body makes specific antibodies that will get rid of the pathogen before it hurts you.

Q: What about the other scary sounding stuff in vaccines?

A: They are all there to make sure the vaccine stays safe and effective. And while they sound awful, they are all actually totally safe in the amounts present. For example, formaldehyde sounds scary, but did you know that it is a normal metabolic byproduct that your body produces in small amounts constantly? You produce more formaldehyde over a matter of minutes than you get from a vaccine. Another fun fact: there is 4-15 times more formaldehyde in a single apple than any one vaccine. And your body simply processes it and gets rid of it (again, it knows how since you are always producing it). Aluminum?  Present in things ranging from organic pears to natural breast milk. One of the first things biochemistry students learn is that dose matters. Yes, large amounts of aluminum and formaldehyde are bad…but large amounts of water can be lethal. Oh, and mercury-containing thimerosol is no longer in early childhood vaccines because it was removed due to public outcry. However, there is still zero scientific data to suggest that thimerosol has any detrimental effects. In fact, the type of mercury in thimerosol is ethyl mercury, which is readily flushed from the body. The bad mercury that our body has a harder time getting rid of is methyl mercury (found in tuna).

Q: Why should you trust a big pharma who profits from vaccines? 

A: My first answer is that you don’t have to. There are a lot of scientists who have published research on the safety of vaccines that are not affiliated with big pharma and do not profit from the results of their findings. They are people like me – who became scientists because they wanted to help learn more about biology in order to diminish human suffering. We work for academic institutions, not big pharma. We ask questions without a vested interest in the answers. These are the scientists that can provide you with unbiased information. You can do a search for yourself on the largest database of scientific journals here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed

You will find that when you search for studies on autism and vaccines, of the hundreds of studies conducted, there is still no scientific data to suggest a link between the two. For example, every epidemiological study conducted on populations of children living in the same community has shown autism occurs at the same rate in vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

  1. What is currently thought to be the cause of autism?

A: It is currently thought that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often begins in utero. A number of the autism risk genes identified affect how the brain develops during gestation. There were actually a couple of papers very recently published indicating specific mutations in a large number of candidate risk genes for autism1, 2. There has also been research showing the influence of environmental factors like maternal antibodies that are present in the womb, which were identified by scientists at the UC Davis MIND Institute3. Autism is a very complicated disorder, and we certainly don’t have all of the answers! But, again, there has been an overwhelming amount of time and money dedicated to investigating a potential link between autism and vaccines, and every study has come back with the same results: there is no data to suggest a link between autism and vaccines.

Q: Back to the big-pharma-makes-a-lot-of-money-argument.

A: Yes, they do. They make money on every drug they produce. I have opinions on big pharma’s business practices that I won’t go into now because it actually has nothing to do with the argument about vaccine effectiveness or safety. For better or for worse, our entire medical system is profit based (our entire economy is, actually). The people at the forefront of the anti-vaccination movement also make a lot of money. That is not why I don’t believe them, though. I don’t believe anti-vaccination proponents because of the absence of scientific data to support their claims. As a scientist, I only believe what the scientific data supports. I read research, not opinions. (That is not meant as a slight to anyone!  I am simply stating my practices. I know that reading primary research papers can be like reading a different language if you do not have a science background, so I would not really expect any non-scientist to have this practice. It’s the same reason I don’t read economics papers. Bleh!)

Q: What about vaccine-related injury?

A: The overall risk is something like 0.003%. And the VAST majority of those 0.003% have minor allergic reactions. Severe allergic reactions can occur, though they are extremely rare. There have been a few cases of autoimmune disorders being triggered by a vaccine. It is not entirely clear whether the vaccine was actually the trigger because it could have been triggered by any pathogen. Importantly, people who are immunocompromised, meaning they have a weakened immune system (chemotherapy patients, HIV patients, genetic immune deficiencies, etc.), cannot be immunized because their immune systems are so weak that even the weakened virus might hurt them. All of these people fall into the class of people who should not get vaccinated and for whom herd immunity is so important!

Q: What is herd immunity?

A: It’s kind of basic math. Viruses cannot replicate on their own. They need to infect a host cell in order to replicate. If they don’t make it into a host cell, they will eventually die. Here’s an easy example: a person infected with a virus walks into a room where there are 20 vaccinated people separating him from a single unvaccinated person. That virus cannot move from the infected person and replicate in any of the vaccinated people because once it gets into their bodies, those memory B cells start pumping out antibodies that kill it before it can replicate and spread. Therefore, those 20 vaccinated people make it harder for the virus to make it to the single unvaccinated person. If half of the people were unvaccinated, that virus would get to have a replication party in all of their cells and would have a much easier time surviving, multiplying, and spreading. Herd immunity is just a basic principle about how infectious pathogens spread. If someone tells you it doesn’t exist, you should be wary of any other scientific information they give you because it means that they have never taken or studied immunology or microbiology and are not qualified to have an educated discussion about those topics.

The tricky thing about vaccines and herd immunity is that herd immunity really only works when a high percentage of the population are vaccinated. If not, then viruses have an easier time spreading around our communities, putting at risk our neighbors who cannot be vaccinated (newborns, cancer patients, etc.), and who are also much more likely to die as a result of infection. That is why the scientific community is so scared.  We feel that even a single death from a vaccine-preventable disease is a tragedy.

Q: Isn’t natural immunity better than vaccine-induced immunity?

A: Well, the immune response is stronger because the pathogens are not weakened, so if you make it through the illness you will, in theory, have a great supply of those memory B cells. The problem is that a lot of these vaccine-preventable pathogens can cause blindness, deafness, brain damage, paralysis, or death. I know of a mama who has a sister who contracted rubella while she was pregnant. Her baby was born blind and deaf because of the infection. So, yes, she now has great immunity to rubella. But she would give anything to have had vaccine-induced immunity prior to her pregnancy.

Q: Why do some vaccines not give lasting immunity? 

A: Each vaccine has a varying degree of effectiveness. By effectiveness I specifically mean the quantity and quality of memory cells that will stick around in the immune system post-vaccine. For example, the smallpox vaccine gave immunity for 65 years whereas the pertussis vaccine only lasts for about 10 years. This is the purpose of boosters. Boosters essentially tell your immune system that it is still important to mount a defense against the pathogen, and replenishes your stock of memory cells.

Q: I heard a lot of adults are to blame for the current measles outbreak. Should adults get vaccinated, too?

  1. Absolutely! If you are unsure of your immunity, you can talk to your medical provider about checking your titer (a measure of your immunity), or you can just get a booster. Even if you’ve had a booster, but can’t exactly remember when and your provider doesn’t do the titer test, getting another booster cannot hurt you.

Q: Why do babies often get fevers after being vaccinated?

A: Part of the natural immune response is the release of molecules called chemokines, which cause fever. As a mama, I know how scary it can be when your little one has a fever, but a post-vaccine fever is indicative of a robust immune response and means they are making great memory B cells. That does not mean you shouldn’t treat your baby’s fever!  (Please consult your pediatrician on when you should treat your baby’s fever.)

Q: What’s up with vaccine shedding?

A: Vaccine shedding is something only possible with a live attenuated virus. This is different from the pertussis vaccine, for example, which is an acellular vaccine, meaning it contains various pieces of the pertussis bacterial molecules and is not infectious at all, cannot cause illness ever, and cannot shed. Again, a live attenuated virus is a weakened virus that reproduces so slowly that a normal immune system will take care of it before it causes any harm. If a person is immunocompromised, live attenuated vaccines cannot be used because their immune system might not be able to handle even a weakened virus. The nasal spray flu vaccine does have a risk of vaccine shedding because the vaccine is administered directly to the mucus membranes of the nose. Therefore, if that recently immunized person were to sneeze onto an immunocompromised person, there is a theoretical possibility that the attenuated virus could give that immunocompromised individual the flu. This is why it is recommended to stay away from immunocompromised individuals for a week after getting the nasal spray flu vaccine.  Other live attenuated viruses are injected into muscle. Some of the weakened virus will get into the lymphatic system, which is where all that good immunity will happen (production of specific antibodies, effector cells, and memory cells that will stay around for a long time). From there, some of the vaccine can enter saliva and mucus, although it is going to be a much lower amount. I think this is why the CDC only has the recommendation to steer clear of immunocompromised individuals in the case of the nasal spray flu vaccine. BUT, and this is critical, the virus that would potentially be shed post-vaccine is the attenuated (weakened) virus that does not cause illness in a person with a normal immune system. This is why vaccine shedding does not cause disease EVER in a person with a normal immune system. It would essentially be like getting an ultra-tiny dose of a vaccine (not enough to even cause an appreciable immune response that would lead to acquired immunity). This is anecdotal, but when my daughter was newborn, my husband did not realize this about the nasal spray flu vaccine when he took our 2 year-old to the doctor…and he got him the nasal spray form of the flu vaccine. I’m happy to report that my newborn daughter did not get the flu. I actually wasn’t really worried; it’s a very minimal risk….but when a person is severely immunocompromised it is important to worry about any potential risk.

Q: If I have a baby that is too young for MMR, could a booster given to a breastfeeding mama give the baby passive immunity through antibodies present in the breast milk?

A: Passive immunity is the transfer of active antibodies from one person to another. This happens during pregnancy when antibodies present in mama cross the placenta to the developing fetus. I recently spoke to an immunologist friend about passive immunity through breast milk. I myself was considering getting the MMR booster to help my 7 month-old baby girl, but he said (sadly) it probably would not boost her passive immunity an appreciable amount (for a virus as strong as measles, anyway). There are five classes of antibodies (IgA, IgG, IgD, IgE, and IgM). The type that is most effective in preventing infection from something like the measles is IgG. These antibodies cross the placenta during pregnancy and give passive immunity to the baby when it is newborn. The primary type of antibody that gets into breast milk is IgA. It provides some protection, but it’s just not as great as IgG.

Q: If newborns get passive immunity from mama during pregnancy, why are they susceptible to illness? 

A: Passive immunity only lasts for a short time. That’s because antibodies tend to not survive very long (a few weeks to a few months, on average). Unfortunately, the effector cells and memory cells that are responsible for making the antibodies in mama do not cross the placenta. The memory cells are the cell types that stick around for years to provide lasting immunity. I read a study that indicated 88 percent of babies of vaccinated mothers have passive immunity to measles at 4 months, and that number dropped to 15 percent by 8 months of age4. Although, and this is important, the amount of antibodies acquired through passive immunity may not be sufficient to protect the baby from a strong pathogen.

Q: What about the alternative vaccine schedule versus the CDC recommended vaccine schedule?

A: I’ve never found evidence to support the alternative vaccine schedule. It is my understanding that it is something to make parents feel more comfortable. There are a lot of factors taken into account for the CDC schedule, which have to do with considerations like when the acquired immunity will be best. For example, MMR is not given until 12 months because they want to make sure that all passive immunity acquired from mama during pregnancy is gone by the time the vaccine is administered because those circulating antibodies would decrease the immune response to the vaccine. So MMR can be given at 6 months, but is better at 12 months…and I recently read a study indicating even a little tiny bit better at 15 months5; but, you could possibly do the initial shot earlier than 12 months and then get the booster early if you are concerned about measles in your community (of course, talk to your doc about these decisions).

I hope this was helpful! Again, I have no financial interest in this debate. As the mama of a 7 month-old baby girl who is not old enough to have MMR, a 2 year-old little boy who only now has partial immunity, and as the stepdaughter to a wonderful man who spent his final 9 months severely immunocompromised due to chemotherapy, I am certainly emotionally invested in the debate. But as a scientist who has read thousands of pages of scientific research, I only want to help spread knowledge and quell fear.

For links to more information about vaccines please check out the blog post just prior to this one.

References

1 Iossifov I, et al., The contributions of de novo coding mutations to autism spectrum disorder. Nature. (2014) 515(7526)

2 De Rubeis S, et al., Synaptic, transcriptional and chromatin genes in autism. Nature. (2014) 515(7526)

3 Bauman MD, et al., Maternal antibodies from mothers of children with autism alter brain growth and social behavior development in the rhesus monkey. Transl Psychiatry. (2013) 9;3

4 De Serres, et al., Passive immunity against measles during the first 8 months of life of infants born to vaccinated mother or to mothers who sustained measles. Vaccine. (1997) 15(6-7):620-3.

5 Hinman A., et al., Comparison of Vaccination with Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccine at 9, 12, and 15 Months of Age. J Infect Dis. (2004) 189