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When Your Extended Family Is Anti-Vaccine

When Your Family Is Anti-Vaxx

By Amalah

Amalah,

I LOVE your Advice Smackdowns and am reeeaaally hoping you can address my question!

My baby girl is due in just two weeks. Between our families, my husband and I have four nieces and nephews, all 3 years and younger. And it seems like at least one of them always has some sort of sickness (my sister’s two daughters tend to be the worst, I’ve caught bugs from them at least three times).

My sister and I have a close, great relationship. And she’s our nearest relative (an hour’s drive away). I LOVE my nieces and hope that they and my daughter will be best friends. But how do I limit contact while my baby’s so little? I want to tell my sister that the nieces can’t hold my baby yet, but my sister is VERY laid back and will probably think I’m insane if I set a rule like that. (Plus, her oldest is 3 and is so excited about meeting her baby cousin.)

Also, my husband and I are planning to vaccinate, while both of our families are very anti-vaxx, so I can see this becoming an ongoing issue. I’m just not sure where to start. How do I protect my baby without hurting any relationships?

Thanks!

Sometimes I do this (annoying) thing where I start writing in my head before I even finish reading the question. Because I’m so overly confident in my powers of deduction and ohhhhhh, I know where this is going and I’ll just queue up my default answer so I’ll be ready to just dive in and start typing right away and then…

/RECORD SCRATCH

The question suddenly veers in a completely new direction with a casual information-bomb dropped into the final paragraph.

That’s what happened with this one.

So, when it comes to colds and general germs and newborns, I’m a pretty laid back sort of person. Anyone who is actively sick should refrain from holding/kissing the baby, anyone just getting over something should wear a mask and wash their hands (with soap, not just hand sanitizer), everybody else needs to wash their hands, cover any accidental coughs/sneezes, etc. I never had any rule about my small children not being allowed to hold their baby brothers unless they fell into the “actively sick” category. Germs are part of life, exposure to bugs builds strong immune systems, I was always breastfeeding and passing along my own antibodies, I took them out in public places anyway, blah blah blah. Basically, I didn’t really sweat the whole common cold/run-of-the-mill virus thing too much. You’ll be fine! (OBVIOUSLY this advice does not apply to premature babies or newborns with underlying immunity/illness concerns. I’m only talking otherwise healthy and full-term newborns/infants here.)

THAT SAID.

If your older child is not vaccinated? Your child is not allowed near my unvaccinated newborn. Full stop. Non-negotiable.

A three-year-old with a gross runny nose? Whatever. That’s not a big deal. But an unvaccinated three-year-old who might have been exposed to the measles or whooping cough? That’s something to be fearful of. THAT’S something to kick a fuss up about, family relationships be damned. I will risk hurting someone’s feelings over that, because unfortunately, the consequences of the anti-vaxx movement are finally here and real and happening. Outbreaks are happening. Preventable diseases are coming back. And babies are dying because they’re too young for the vaccine and can no longer count on herd immunity to protect them in the meantime.

And since you mention BOTH of your families are anti-vaxx, well. Crap. That’s not much of a herd at all. The odds of exposure to something serious but preventable will be pointlessly higher, just by having all those unvaccinated nieces and nephews walk through your door.

I know this is (uncharacteristically…?) harsh for this column, but I have zero patience for anti-vaxx nonsense, I don’t want to scare you with a ton of links and YouTube videos, but unfortunately there are plenty of very scary, very sad stories out there as a result of this exact situation. An unvaccinated older child contracts whooping cough and survives, while someone else’s too-young-to-vaccinate newborn does not. Your families want to roll the dice with THEIR children’s health, fine. (No it’s not REALLY fine, but whatever.) They cannot force you and your vulnerable newborn to share that same risk. I know you love your family and this is a crappy, stressful situation to be in, but they’re the ones who made a dangerous, selfish choice.

Talk to your pediatrician ASAP — even if your baby isn’t here yet — and tell them your situation. Ask for advice. Talk to them about the vaccination schedule they follow and at what age your baby will be protected from the most dangerous diseases (and ones that are unfortunately making the strongest comeback). Find out what other precautions you should take around your family members.

You’re going to have to make some tough decisions and yes, have some very tough conversations. You can certainly be more polite/diplomatic than I’ve been here, but know that you are entirely justified to make whatever rule and build whatever buffer zone you need to protect your baby. They likely will think you’re crazy or overreacting. But when the herd in general starts making reckless decisions because of debunked science or a flawed view of how deadly serious things like measles/whooping cough/mumps/etc. can be to the most vulnerable people around them, well… It’s up to the rest of us to be the grown-ups who DO take this shit seriously.

Photo source: Depositphotos/muha04

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Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Elizabeth Wagner

    100% YES.

  • ELF

    Yes, 1000%. You and your husband need to say to your families that your baby will not be having any contact with unvaccinated children until she is old enough to get vaccines to protect her. I haven’t had this specific issue in my family, but this is the line my husband and I are holding with some of his relatives on guns (I fully support your right to own a gun, but my child is not setting foot in any house that contains a gun). Say this BEFORE the baby is born. Most of the major early vaccine series can be finished by 18mos-2years, so tell your families that they get to MEET YOUR DAUGHTER FOR THE FIRST TIME as a fully-vaccinated 2 year old. Yes, they will miss the tiny baby stages (since they probably still won’t vaccinate), but by the time she is 6 or 7 everyone (including her) will feel like they have known her their whole lives.

    • kefi18

      Love this; we had to do the same thing with my brother-in-law and his guns. It’s his right to own them, that’s fine, but he keeps loaded shotguns in every room of his house and doesn’t seem worried at all about their 3 year old daughter potentially getting injured (“the safety is on!”), and guns make me uncomfortable so we just don’t go over to their house anymore. We invite them over when we all hang out and have made it very clear that if he brings a gun with him, it needs to stay in the car, because there’s no reason to have a loaded handgun sitting in the middle of my kitchen table (yeah, he’s done that too).

  • Ally

    Thank you for being vocal about this. We made this decision with my husband’s sister and it was hard, but I’m glad we did it.

  • Vickie

    Also have to guard against doctor’s office waiting rooms and exam rooms if it is a pediatrician with a large unvaccinated patient base. Can catch things from something as simple as staff uniforms if they are in close contact with kids/babies.

    Honestly I am irritated (even with no new baby) with extended family members who do not get flu shots. So the whole anti-vaccine thing would put me over the top with a new baby.

    • Ros

      Omg civic responsibility. Vulnerable people can die from the flu. Hell, healthy adults can die from the flu.

      Is it just that we haven’t had a serious-enough pandemic in recent memory that’s the problem??

  • Anne

    THANK YOU STANDING APPLAUSE. And that is why I read your column. ???

  • Holly

    My very good friend was in your position, and did just what Amy recommended (and I would do too): none of the cousins/aunts/uncles in the non-vaccinated group met her babies until they were 2yo. She said, that “yeah, it made holidays a little awkward for awhile, especially for our parents, but there was NO WAY I was exposing my babies”. Now, those “babies” are 5 and 8, and all the families hang out together, etc. It can be done. Just tell them NOW, to avoid the emotion after the birth.

  • Ros

    All of what you said, 100% agreement.

    With the warning that there will be epic push-back, especially from convinced anti-vax-ers. Brace yourself for it.

    • Caroline Bowman

      yes of course, and that’s going to be the issue, so get husband onboard and hold firm. Very firm. Don’t be rude (it will be tempting to screech obscenities and ask if they’re brain-damaged or just hate their kids), but don’t do this! Just refuse, flatly, to budge.

  • LMo

    Yup, yup, yup. And I’d go one step further. No unvaccinated adults are allowed around my children either. When both of my girls were born, we sent an email to all family members requiring that they be up to date on their flu shots and TDAP vaccines before they met our kids. Period. Full stop. No one gets a say on that issue but me. Our newest baby was born in January, in the heart of cold and flu season. It’s hard enough keeping her healthy for the first two months (when even a minor fever requires a hospital visit) without worrying about preventable infections.

    Also, ask about your pediatrician’s policies. My pedi no longer accepts patients who decline vaccination (unless there is a valid medical reason, other than “I don’t wanna!”). That makes me feel much safer bringing my babies into a germy office.

    • Guest

      I did this too, my baby was born in October 2015 and I gently requested that everyone be up to date on their DTAP vaccines before they came to visit. It wasn’t a big deal though, because my family is sane and kind and understanding.

    • JenVegas

      I had a fight with my mother who was refusing to get a TDAP before coming to stay at my house after my son was born. I told her she wasn’t welcome if she wasn’t vaccinate and she didn’t speak to me for, like, 2 months. I assume someone set her straight because she ended up getting it but man, whooooo.

    • Emily Keller

      We had the same issue with my MIL who just decided she would rather not see her first grandson until he had his 6mo shots instead of getting the vaccine. Her choice I guess.

  • I’m with Amalah on this. It’s going to be rough going, though. When you have the talk with them, bring articles about recent outbreaks. These diseases can cause permanent injury (encephalitis, deafness, blindness) and death.

    Make sure you’re up to date on your own shots as well, German Measles can cause deafness in utero.

  • Lauren

    I’m all for caution when dealing with serious illnesses around newborns, having a micropreemie myself and three other children. Despite Amy’s strong stance against unvaccinated, please be aware even fully vaccinated individuals can be a risk for newborns. Don’t accept anyone as “safe” because they’ve had their shots while dismissing perfectly healthy others. Period.

    Check out what the CDC, recent studies, nytimes have to say about the fact that there’s a well known, documented problem with the whooping cough vaccine causing asymptomatic carriers to infect the immunocompromised.

    I’m surprised Amy didn’t mention it but I suppose people don’t always keep abreast on vaccine studies before doling out advice.

    • Bonnie

      She was pretty clear about her stance on “everybody” in the first part of the answer, which would also, I think, cover everybody else in the world who may have had the whooping cough vaccine and may or may not be an asymptomatic carrier and may or may not know that, which covers… everybody in the world. Not accepting anyone as “safe, Period.” sounds like a recipe for unnecessary neurosis. Amalah had excellent advice in the pre-record-scratch part of the answer for dealing with the rest of the non-non-vaxxing world, if you actually read it.

    • IrishCream

      It’s common knowledge that vaccines don’t provide 100% immunity. No one disputes that. Doesn’t mean it’s OK to skip vaccines. And when it comes to dismissing “perfectly healthy” people who haven’t been vaccinated: many communicable diseases are contagious before the carriers experience symptoms. That’s true of infections against we can’t vaccinate, too, but those tend to be less fatal.

      Also, it is literally Amy’s job to “dole out advice.”

  • Kay

    Thank you Amalah! I don’t have any more advice (I think the commenters below who said to hold the line did a great job) but I’ll share my experience because it used to be rare but unfortunately is becoming more common. I was not vaccinated as a child because of an immune issue I had as a baby. In America at the time herd immunity was believed to protect the immunocompromised who didn’t receive vaccines. When my parents moved us outside the U.S. the “herd” was not strong enough to prevent me from contracting mumps and then a complex case of measles. These are serious disease and I continue to have complications from measles as an adult.

    My mother was completely beside herself. She was basically waiting to see if I would contract post-measles encephalitis, which is rare but highly fatal and can affect someone up to 10 years after they’ve “recovered”. It really pains me now as a mother to know that my entire childhood, my mom constantly wondered when I might be struck down by the long-term effects of this disease. It cast a shadow over everything and still affects us, me physically and my parents psychologically. I don’t mean to frighten anyone but rather strengthen the resolve to prevent these diseases even if it hurts some feelings or makes relationships difficult. Don’t let yourself be bullied about this. Lives are at risk.

  • Sarah

    I absolutely agree with Amalah. I work in a family practice office and have witnessed the difficult conversation between our physicians and new parents regarding vaccines. At the end of the day our office policy is that if parents are unwilling to vaccinate their children they will have to seek care elsewhere. We are not willing to expose the bulk of our patients to dangerous diseases (PREVENTABLE DISEASES) because of one parent’s discomfort with vaccination. If patients are coming to the office for a sick visit we require that they wear a mask while in the office to protect other patients. They are informed of this when they call to schedule and we hold to this policy without fail. I see it as my job and responsibility to protect all of my patients and sometimes that means being the “bad guy”. This very similarly reflects to your situation as you will have to be the “bad guy”, but be steadfast in this. Just remember that at the end of the day you are doing what is best for YOUR child. Anything anyone else has to say about it can toss their opinions right out the window. Protect your babies. Congratulations and best of luck to you! 🙂

  • Jeannie Shirley

    Also agree 100%. My grandfather grew up without a sibling because he had whooping cough as a toddler and survived — but not before passing it to his infant brother, who did not. These diseases kill babies. Don’t take chances.

    And don’t let your guard down until the shots are *done*. My now 11 year old was a week away from his last pneumococcal vaccine (booster) when he contracted it in his kidney and was going septic before they figured out it wasn’t “just a virus”. He also could have died, and he was vaccinated — just not fully. Sure, this was super rare, but this is why vaccines rare important. You can survive many of them, but the rare cases are too tragic to take chances with.

  • THANK YOU YES. Herd immunity. Civic duty. Anger at people being so laissez faire about their children’s safety but sheer RAGE that their choices put my own kids at risk.

    I too had a winter baby and I let just about no one see her. I took her almost no where. (Not even the grocery store. Hell, ESPECIALLY not the grocery store) and yup- required everyone who saw her be up to date on shots. I still caught the flu though, ain’t that a kick in the teeth? But she had my antibodies and I did my absolute best to minimize any risk to her.

    It’s just that switch that gets thrown where we advocate for our children and anyone else’s feeling be damned- that’s how I look at parenting!

  • Caroline Bowman

    Just be very calm and keep a level, non-aggressive tone and tell them in short sentences that until your baby has had her vaccines, all the applicable ones (so for about 4-5 months minimum), she unfortunately cannot see her cousins because they are unvaccinated. They may be perfectly well and not sick at all, but they could easily, easily be brewing something horrendous. My granny lost her baby sister and mum in circa 1920’s to a measles outbreak. Lots of people in her area did. It was common. That ”childhood mild thing” kills people, especially young or otherwise fragile people. The anti-vaxxers (I am sorry to insult your wider family) are shortsighted morons who should be charged with reckless endangerment AND if one of their children contracts and is either killed by or sustains lifelong damage from one of the relevant diseases, should be jailed and have their children immediately removed from their care. Yes, I feel that strongly. You only see one child with polio to come to that decision. Just one. I have seen it and I can never unsee it… and guess which terribly wholesome hippy parents were rending their shirts and begging the Big Pharma Shill Men (and women) in White Coats to save and rehabilitate their dying child???

    How those doctors remained calm and polite is beyond me.

    But I digress. You have every right to dig in over this. Please don’t be pressured or made to feel silly. Please do this for your baby.

  • Kim

    I’m with Amalah all the way. I have no patience for anti-vacination nonsense either and I WILL NOT hesitate to prohibit visitation from any anti-vaxx family. Luckily, my baby is the first born grandchild on both sides so I’m the one setting precedent. Haha! With friends, I also have no qualms about limiting contact or even freezing out any adult who hasn’t been vaccinated. If they want to see my newborn, they could get their vaccination catch-up.

  • Amanda Griffin

    I COMPLETELY agree! All 3 of my kids are vaccinated, but apparently the potency wears off after time, because last year my 10yo caught the whooping cough and gave it to my 2 month old. We spent 10 days in a oxygen tent in the hospital, and when we got home, I had to sleep on the couch with her wedged beside my head (not safe, I know), but she was to little to cough up the thick gunk in her lungs, so she would just stop breathing. The only way I was alerted to this was when she would start to flail around (because she was dying), and I would have to jump up and grab a suction bulb and jam it as far down her throat as I could, and get the gunk out. (Not to mention the endless nebulizer treatments, and having to beat your infant on the chest and back 6 times a day to loosen the mucus.) It was the scariest, most exhausting 6 weeks (yes, whooping cough lasts on average 6 weeks) of my life. The image of a nurse grabbing my blue infant and running down the hall with her will forever be burned in my memory. So no, I would NEVER let my newborn around un-vaxed kids- mine caught it from one that was! I was sort of on the fence about vaccines before this (mine got them only b/c the schools and daycare required it), but that experience has me absolutely on the vax side. I think if the anti-vaxers could see what we went through, a lot of minds might change.

  • YES X 10000000000!

  • Tiffany

    And if they give you a hard time about vaccinating? (Which, yes, probably they will) They made their choice, you let them. Now you get to make your choice, and they need to let you. Congratulations on your baby!

  • Leah

    Question: Can a vaccinated person still spread a virus against which they have been vaccinated? With good hygiene and regular preventative measures, can a virus hang out “on” but not “in” a vaccinated person long enough to infect others?

    • Susie

      Theoretically yes but Rarely. Nothing is 100% perfect, so there is always that strange confluence of events that can happen and make even the most well protected against virus go nasty. But it’s rare.

  • Kat

    Question for the OP – is it a problem that the nieces and whatnot get sick occasionally, or that they aren’t vaccinated? The vaccination thing was so far down in the letter that I can’t tell if the issue is actually “how do I keep germy/oft sick kiddos from holding my baby without hurting little kids’ feelings” or “these important people don’t vaccinate their children and I’m concerned for my baby and don’t want them around, how do I tell them”? Because I’m with many others – a common cold isn’t what I worried about (obviously I had folks wash hands and not come over if they were sick/etc) but unvaccinated kids and adults would be a huge no no for me, for all the reasons other folks laid out. These family members are so lucky to have not contracted anything serious, but yeah. I wouldn’t risk that for my children, personally. And I would bet that if you push back it’s going to be a hard fight/be awkward and everything, but sorry – avoiding a deadly disease is worth it.

  • Call me Jo

    Absolutely! As a researcher who works in public health, I couldn’t agree more.
    I would recommend looking into the geographic areas of both families to see what diseases are currently circulating and share that with your pediatrician when you have this discussion. My area has had a recent outbreak of mumps and a consistently high rate of whooping cough due to a strong anti-vaxx movement in the area. I had all recommended vaccinations while pregnant to try and protect my kids, and we have a rule that you wash your hands when you get home (we have a preschooler) to try and protect the baby from the general public’s stupidity.
    Stay strong mama! And boning up on the anti-vaxx “research” may be helpful prior to having to have the conversations with your families so you have your counterpoints (aka real research) ready. Because they WILL try to convince you that you are wrong 🙁

  • Reader

    Amy is definitely right here (as usual). Start by talking to your pediatrician so that you have concrete guidelines and scienctific evidence to back you up. There are going to be some uncomfortable family conversations, and they will likely talk about you behind your back, criticizing you as a “neurotic first time mom,” but so what? Which is a worse scenario: your family thinking you are over-protective or your newborn dying from whooping cough? Case closed. (Sorry to be harsh on that one, terrible image, but it is what you have to keep in mind when you are doubting yourself).

  • Guest

    Amy, thank you for this excellent, clear-headed advice. I was a PreK teacher in Southern California, a haven for anti-vaxxers and subsequently, measles and whooping cough outbreaks. I personally know of a family that lost an infant to whooping cough–because their older (unvaccinated) child brought the disease home from school, and the baby couldn’t fight it. A devastating, and completely unnecessary death. There are no words.