Are Vaccines Linked to Birth Defects?

During pregnancy, it’s natural to be concerned about your baby’s health. Eating well, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can certainly all benefit your baby. But what about vaccines — can they protect you and your baby? Are there risks?

Contrary to some of the rumors you may have read, vaccines are not linked to birth irregularities.

Here’s what you need to know about vaccines during pregnancy, and how to protect you and your baby from potentially serious illnesses.

To date, there’s no evidence that being vaccinated during pregnancy can cause birth irregularities or developmental issues for the baby.

In fact, there are many benefits from vaccines during pregnancy, including protecting both you and your baby from serious complications associated with certain infections.

One major 2017 study analyzed over 20 years of data reported to the national Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) between 1990 and 2014. Researchers noted that there were few reports of birth defects. They also said there was no pattern from these reports that points to any condition caused by vaccines during pregnancy.

Most vaccines are safe during pregnancy. But some vaccines should be taken before you get pregnant or after you have delivered your baby.

Vaccines that include live viruses are not recommended during pregnancy because there’s a risk that the live viruses may cause infections in an unborn baby. However, even these vaccines haven’t been shown to cause birth defects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding these vaccinations during pregnancy:

  • MMR
  • HPV
  • varicella (chickenpox)
  • tuberculosis
  • the flu mist vaccine, which is given via a nasal spray (though the flu shot, given as an injection, is safe and recommended while you’re pregnant)

If you plan to travel, try to get any vaccines before you’re pregnant, if possible. These vaccines, which are often needed for travel, are not recommended during pregnancy:

Discuss these vaccines with your doctor to determine if the benefit of the vaccine outweighs the risk. If you have one of these vaccines and then discover you’re pregnant, tell your doctor immediately. You’ll likely need to get a further dose if necessary after delivery.

Vaccinations before or during pregnancy are important for the sake of your health, as well as the health of your baby.

With vaccination, you reduce the risk of certain infections that could lead to serious illness and potential pregnancy complications. Your baby also benefits from some of the antibodies created from vaccines during the first few months of their life.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated during pregnancy, your baby will still need to follow their childhood vaccination schedule and get fully vaccinated.

For example, newborns who contract the flu virus are at a higher risk of developing pneumonia. Also, half of newborns who develop whooping cough (pertussis) are hospitalized with serious disease.

You can help reduce these risks by getting vaccinated against these two viruses before or during pregnancy.

Ideally, you’ll be up to date on your vaccine schedules before getting pregnant. However, certain vaccines are still required during certain points of your pregnancy, such as those for the flu and whooping cough viruses.

There has been no evidence linking the COVID-19 vaccine to birth defects. In fact, pregnancy is considered a risk factor for developing severe illness from COVID-19.

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 helps protect you from the disease and may help prevent severe symptoms if you do develop it.

If you have not yet gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, or are partially vaccinated, talk with a doctor or healthcare professional about the appropriate next steps based on your vaccination schedule.

During each pregnancy, the CDC recommends that you get both your annual flu and whooping cough vaccine. The whooping cough vaccine is known as the Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.

Vaccination against both whooping cough and the flu during pregnancy not only protects you from getting sick, but the immunity can also extend to your baby’s first few months of life when they are most vulnerable to these types of infections.

Such benefits outweigh any possible — and unfounded — claims for birth defects and developmental issues associated with whooping cough and flu vaccines. Always discuss information about vaccines with a doctor or healthcare professional.

The CDC recommends the following vaccines during pregnancy:

Whooping cough (pertussis)

Whooping cough is a serious, and highly contagious respiratory infection. While this infection may be severe in anyone at any age, it can be deadly in infants.

Babies and young children don’t start the whooping cough vaccination series until 2 months of age. Thus, getting vaccinated during pregnancy can help protect you and your baby from having this potentially fatal infection.

Currently, the CDC recommends that all pregnant people receive a Tdap vaccine between week 27 and week 36 of pregnancy, with earlier vaccinations within this timeframe preferable. Doing so ensures the most protection possible for your baby.

The whooping cough vaccine is considered safe. While some people may experience side effects, these are typically mild and won’t interfere with your daily activities. Some of these include injection site side effects, such as pain and swelling, fever, fatigue, or stomach upset.

Flu

If you don’t already get an annual flu vaccine, now is a good time to start.

According to the CDC, people who are pregnant may be at a higher risk for severe illnesses from the flu virus, possibly due to temporary changes in overall immune and organ function.

As with whooping cough vaccination, timing is key here in providing the optimal protection against the flu.

The CDC recommends that pregnant people get their flu vaccinations by the end of October to ensure the most adequate protection possible for both mother and baby.

COVID-19

If you haven’t had a COVID-19 vaccination yet or need a booster, the CDC says it’s safe to get those during pregnancy.

In fact, the CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccination and booster shots during pregnancy. Their recommendations are in line with other professional medical organizations, such as:

Other vaccine recommendations

Other possible vaccines a doctor may recommend during pregnancy include:

  • hepatitis A, especially if you have a history of chronic liver disease
  • hepatitis B, if you have the infection, so that you may prevent transmission to your baby during delivery
  • vaccines for meningococcal disease before pregnancy, and possibly other bacterial and viral infections if you plan on international travel during pregnancy

Additionally, if you have not yet received an MMR vaccine, your doctor may recommend getting the shot one month before trying to get pregnant.

This helps prevent possible birth defects, miscarriage, or stillbirth from rubella. Rubella is a serious and life threatening type of viral infection.

Most vaccines are considered safe during pregnancy. There’s no evidence to support any connection between vaccinations and birth irregularities or developmental issues for a baby.

While some vaccines may cause mild side effects, it’s important to know that these may occur outside of pregnancy, too.

Talk with a doctor or healthcare professional about any concerns you have regarding vaccines for you and your baby. They can make recommendations that will help ensure the best health possible for both parent and baby.