A Parents’ Guide to Vaccines for Children

Vaccines protect babies and children from potentially life-threatening diseases at a time when they're most vulnerable. In fact, widespread childhood vaccination has reduced or eliminated deadly diseases like polio and smallpox.

By following the recommended immunization schedule for your child, you can protect them and those around them from avoidable health risks.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that kids receive vaccines against 16 preventable diseases.

Here’s an overview of the current recommended immunization schedule for children, from birth to 18 years old.

A gloved healthcare worker in blue scrubs delivers a vaccine to a young girl in a clinical setting.

ER Productions Limited / Getty Images

How Vaccines Work

Vaccines work with the body’s natural immune system to produce a protective response to harmful antigens (viruses or bacteria). Vaccines trigger your body to produce antibodies against the disease before you’re ever exposed to it. They can also prevent reinfection.

Common Vaccines for Children

  • Inactivated vaccines: These contain a dead version of the virus they protect against. They aren’t quite as strong as live vaccines, so your child may need booster shots to maintain immunity.
  • Live-attenuated vaccines: These vaccines contain a weakened, harmless version of an antigen. They're usually more powerful than inactivated vaccines and can provide lifetime protection against conditions like smallpox, measles, mumps, and rubella.
  • Recombinant vaccines: These vaccines behave like a natural infection, using the proteins of a virus to activate the body's immune response. Examples include the hepatitis B vaccine and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
  • Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines: These vaccines, such as the COVID-19 vaccine, make proteins that trigger an immune response by showing the body a “blueprint” for fighting the virus.

There are several ways that your baby or child might receive a vaccine. The main ways vaccines for children are administered are:

School Requirements

The CDC doesn’t regulate vaccine requirements for schools or childcare centers in America. Instead, each state sets its own rules regarding school immunization requirements. Check your state laws to find out which vaccines your child is required to get before attending school.

Outside of medical exemptions, there are two other types of possible vaccine exemptions: religious exemptions and philosophical exemptions based on personal beliefs.

Different Types of Vaccines for Children

The following are the most common immunizations for children in the U.S. and the diseases they prevent:

  • Hepatitis B (HepB) vaccine: Hepatitis B is a viral infection that can affect the liver, sometimes resulting in liver failure or cancer of the liver. The HepB vaccine is given in three doses, with the first just after birth.
  • Rotavirus (RV) vaccine: Babies can get two-dose series at 2 and 4 months, or a three-dose series at 2, 4, and 6 months to protect against rotavirus infection, which can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and fever.
  • DTap and Tdap vaccines: The DTap vaccine protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough). The Tdap vaccine is a recommended booster shot against the same infections.
  • Haemophilus influenza (Hib) conjugate vaccine: The Hib vaccine prevents Hib infection. Hib infection can cause several serious complications, including meningitis and pneumonia.
  • Pneumococcal vaccine (Prevnar13 and Vaxneuvance): Pneumococcal disease is caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae and can lead to meningitis, pneumonia, or sepsis.
  • Poliovirus (IPV) vaccine: The polio vaccine protects children against the highly contagious poliovirus. Polio used to affect thousands of children per year, causing paralysis or even death.
  • Hepatitis A (HepA) vaccine: Hepatitis A is a viral liver infection that can cause fever, jaundice (a yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin), and severe dehydration.
  • MMR vaccine: The MMR vaccine protects children against three formerly common childhood diseases: measles, mumps, and rubella.
  • Varicella (VAR) vaccine: The VAR vaccine prevents chickenpox and is given in two doses, starting at 12 months of age.
  • Meningococcal vaccine (MenACWY and MenB): The meningococcal vaccine protects against bacterial meningitis, which can be especially risky for teens and young adults living in close quarters (such as at camp or college).
  • Influenza vaccine: The annual flu vaccine protects against the influenza virus. There are six different types of flu vaccines for school-aged kids.
  • HPV vaccine: The HPV vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes some strains of cervical cancer and anal cancer.

Child Vaccine Schedule at a Glance

The annual vaccine schedule is set by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is part of the CDC. The list of vaccines for children by age is updated every year with input from medical experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and several other organizations.

Here’s a list of the currently recommended vaccines for children from birth to 18 years old.

Vaccine Schedule
 Vaccine  Doses  Age
 HepB  3  Birth, 1–2 months, 6–18 months
 RV  2–3  2 and 4 months or 2, 4, and 6 months
 DTaP  5 2, 4, 6, and 15–18 months; 4–6 years
 Hib  3–4  2, 4, 6, and 12-15 months, or 2, 4, and 12-15 months
 Pneumococcal  4  2, 4, 6–18 months and 12–15 months
 IPV  4  2, 4, and 6–18 months; 4–6 years
 Influenza  Annually  6 months and older
 MMR  2  12–15 months, 4–6 years
 VAR  2  12–15 months, 4–6 years
 HepA  2  12 and 18–23 months
 Tdap  1  11–12 years
 HPV  2–3 11–12 years, but can start at 9 years; 2-dose series if started at 9–14 years, 3–dose series if started at 15 years or older
 MenACWY  2–3 11–12 years, 16 years 

Vaccine Hesitancy for Parents

The anti-vaccination movement has led some parents to worry about vaccinating their children. Efforts by people who don’t believe in vaccinations have already resulted in unexpected outbreaks of previously eliminated diseases, such as measles.

Some parents are worried that vaccines for children haven't gone through enough testing. Others are concerned about potential side effects or vaccine reactions.

However, vaccines are generally safe and effective. Your child’s best protection against many common but preventable diseases is to follow the recommended immunization schedule.

Vaccine Safety

  • Vaccines are effective and lifesaving. Vaccine-preventable diseases can still appear in the U.S. at any time, and immunization protects your child if they’re exposed.
  • Alternative vaccine schedules aren’t approved by any medical association in the U.S. There’s no evidence that a different schedule is necessary or that vaccines “overburden” a child’s immune system.

As always, speak with your child’s pediatrician about any concerns you might have, especially if your child is immunocompromised, has had an organ transplant, or has any severe allergies or preexisting conditions.

COVID-19 Vaccines for Kids

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for emergency use authorization (EUA) in children ages 6 months and older and the Novavax vaccine for EUA in children ages 12 years and older.

Updated bivalent boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna also received EUA from the FDA.

The CDC recommends a bivalent booster shot for everyone over the age of 5, regardless of the type of vaccine series initially received. A bivalent booster shot is recommended two months after receiving a primary COVID-19 vaccination series or after the last booster dose. 

Children ages 5 years are only eligible to receive the bivalent Pfizer booster. Everyone ages 6 years and older can choose to get the Pfizer or Moderna bivalent booster. 

Efficacy of the Covid-19 Vaccine for Kids

In a study of around 3,100 children, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was found to be safe and 90.7% effective in preventing COVID-19.

Summary

Vaccines are one of the most important ways that parents can protect their children from life-threatening diseases. Babies get the hepatitis B vaccine just after birth. If you follow the recommended immunization schedule, your children will be protected from 16 vaccine-preventable diseases by the time they turn 18.

If your child misses a shot, don’t worry. Just ask their healthcare provider to continue the series at your next visit.

A Word From Verywell

Vaccines currently prevent around 2 million to 3 million deaths per year.

They protect children and vulnerable loved ones, like their grandparents, immunocompromised classmates and relatives, and siblings who are too young to get vaccinated, from preventable, life-threatening diseases.

By following the recommended immunization schedule, you can protect both your child’s health and the health of those around them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should children begin getting vaccines?

    The CDC recommends that children get their first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine just after birth.

    According to the recommended immunization schedule, they’ll receive most of their shots against vaccine-preventable diseases before 15 months of age.

    Kids will receive some additional vaccines at 4–6 years old and again at 11–12 years old.

  • Is there a COVID vaccine for kids?

    The COVID vaccine has been found to be safe and effective for
    minors, with few side effects reported.

    The CDC recommends that anyone 6 months and older receive a COVID-19 vaccine. People ages 6 months to 11 years are eligible for either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Teens aged 12-17 may receive the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, or Novavax.

  • Can parents opt out of childhood vaccines?

    The federal government doesn't mandate vaccination requirements. Instead, each state sets its own rules about school-required immunizations.

    There are 15 states that currently allow for some personal-beliefs vaccine exemptions, while 44 states and Washington, D.C., allow for some religious exemptions.

    However, nonmedical exemptions for vaccines are rare and not recommended by any medical organization in the US.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Five important reasons to vaccinate your child.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended vaccines by age.

  3. World Health Organization. How do vaccines work?

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Vaccine types.

  5. National Conference of State Legislatures. States with religious and philosophical exemptions from school immunization requirements.

  6. World Health Organization. Poliomyelitis.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021 recommended vaccinations for infants and children (birth through 6 years).

  8. Hussain A, Ali S, Ahmed M, Hussain S. The anti-vaccination movement: a regression in modern medicine. Cureus. 10(7):e2919. doi: 10.7759/cureus.2919

  9. Offit PA, Quarles J, Gerber MA, et al. Addressing parents’ concerns: do multiple vaccines overwhelm or weaken the infant’s immune system? Pediatrics. 2002;109(1):124-129. doi: 10.1542/peds.109.1.124

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay Up to Date with COVID-19 Vaccines Including Boosters.

  11. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA authorizes Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in children 5 through 11 years of age.

  12. World Health Organization. Vaccines and immunization. Updated June 1, 2021.

  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay Up to Date with COVID-19 Vaccines Including Boosters.

By Laura Dorwart
Laura Dorwart is a health journalist with particular interests in mental health, pregnancy-related conditions, and disability rights. She has published work in VICE, SELF, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Week, HuffPost, BuzzFeed Reader, Catapult, Pacific Standard, Health.com, Insider, Forbes.com, TalkPoverty, and many other outlets.