An alternative vaccination schedule refers to giving children vaccinations at a different time or pace than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends. Find out why some parents choose this option and if it’s safe.

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Childhood vaccines are lifesaving inventions. According to UNICEF, they save 2 to 3 million children from life threatening diseases every year.

But according to research from 2020, more than one-third of children in the United States are on a delayed vaccination schedule.

With so much information swirling around regarding COVID-19 vaccines in the last couple of years, some parents may feel hesitant to have their children receive shots on the vaccine schedule the CDC recommends.

Even though research shows that vaccines do not cause autism spectrum disorders, some parents might delay vaccinating their children out of fear.

Whatever your reasons for considering an alternative vaccination schedule for your child, it’s important to get the facts. Here’s what you need to know about how following a different path for vaccination might affect your child’s health.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 vaccination recommendations for children

The CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccines for people ages 6 months and older and boosters for people ages 5 years and older if eligible.

There are two brands of COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in children: the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.

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The CDC’s immunization schedule is a guide for when to vaccinate children from birth to 18 years old. Experts divide it into two parts: Vaccines to receive from birth to 15 months and vaccines to receive from 18 months to 18 years old.

People consider diverging from the CDC’s schedule on the timing or number of immunizations an alternate vaccine schedule. Despite the risks of delaying or skipping vaccinations, some parents opt for a different vaccination plan.

For some families, this might look like delaying certain vaccines past the recommended timeline. When this is the case, the CDC offers some guidelines for timing some “catch-up” vaccinations.

For others, it might involve spacing vaccines out into separate doctor visits rather than receiving several shots at once. And some families elect to skip some shots altogether.

It’s worth noting, too, that different countries have some variations in their immunization timing recommendations. An alternative vaccination schedule might look somewhat different, depending on where you live.

Things to know if you are considering an alternate vaccination schedule for your child

  • According to the CDC, there are no known benefits from delaying or skipping vaccines.
  • Your child may get sick or seriously ill from a vaccine-preventable disease.
  • You may need to notify doctors that your child is not fully vaccinated before you bring your child in for care.
  • You may have to keep your child home from school if there is an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease, like measles or chickenpox.
  • Some countries require that children entering the country have specific vaccinations.
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Experts recommend that people get the following immunizations between birth and 15 months old:

  • hepatitis B
  • rotavirus
  • diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b
  • pneumococcal conjugate
  • inactivated poliovirus
  • influenza
  • measles, mumps, and rubella
  • varicella
  • hepatitis A

Healthcare professionals give many of these shots as a series. Some people complete the series by 15 months old, while others complete it before their 18th birthdays.

Between the ages of 18 months and 18 years old, the CDC recommends the following vaccines:

  • hepatitis B
  • diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis
  • inactivated poliovirus
  • influenza
  • measles, mumps, and rubella
  • varicella
  • hepatitis A
  • human papillomavirus
  • meningococcal
  • dengue (only in areas where there are cases of dengue)

To be clear, there are no documented health benefits of deviating from the CDC’s childhood immunization schedule. No major public health organizations recommend doing so, and most pediatric health experts advise against it.

However, rarely, there may be special circumstances when an alternate vaccine schedule can be acceptable.

“The only times when following an alternate schedule is recommended are when there is a concern about an allergy to vaccines, or the child has a condition impacting their immune system,” says Lori Solomon, MD, MPH, FAAFP, Chair for the Department of Family & Community Medicine at New York Medical College.

“Depending on the disease, certain vaccines may not be recommended. For example, we don’t give live vaccines like varicella or measles to those who have a very weak immune system.”

Outside these situations, deviating from the traditional vaccine schedule provides an emotional benefit for parents and caregivers rather than health benefits for children.

“Unfortunately, false claims of risks associated with vaccines are prevalent in the media and have caused many parents to distrust the advice of medical professionals and health authorities,” says Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP, pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best. “Administering these vaccines on a schedule in which parents feel more comfortable is often an acceptable compromise.”

Having your little one immunized on a different-than-recommended schedule could affect their health. The chief concern: If your child contracts a disease before getting a vaccine, they won’t have immunological protection.

“Many vaccine-preventable infections can result in hospitalizations, long-term disabilities, or death,” says Alexander. “Essentially, delaying or skipping certain vaccines increases an infant’s or child’s risk of acquiring such infections and having adverse outcomes.”

For example, a study from 2009 showed that children whose parents refused the whooping cough vaccine were at a high risk of getting the infection, compared with vaccinated children — even though the U.S. has herd immunity on a societal level.

Meanwhile, charting your own course for immunizations might not just mean getting certain shots at a later time. It could lead to your child receiving more total shots — or missing some altogether.

“Most doctors’ offices have standing orders to give vaccines according to the CDC vaccine schedule,” says Solomon. “Additionally, many pediatric vaccines are formulated into combinations so that many vaccines can be delivered with one injection. The combinations are based on the standard vaccine schedule, so deviating from the schedule may mean more shots.”

Finally, it’s possible your child’s school may not allow them to attend if they’re not up to date on their scheduled vaccines.

The biggest risk in the long-term outlook for children on an alternate vaccine schedule is, again, their risk of infection and illness.

“Most of the vaccinations require several doses before the child is sufficiently immune, so the longer it takes to get these vaccines in, the longer the child is at risk for developing the disease,” says Solomon.

Remember, too, that years of research show the number of vaccine doses and administration schedules that provide the best disease protection. Children might not have the same level of immune response if they receive a vaccine outside the recommended window.

“Infants’ immune systems are still developing. The vaccines they receive during this time prime the immune system for protective responses in the future,” says Alexander.

Should parents avoid vaccinating their kids?

In the absence of a religious concern or health condition, parents may want to consider vaccinating their children. Decades of research show that vaccines are safe to receive on schedule and protective against numerous life threatening illnesses.

How long can I delay my baby’s vaccinations?

Per the CDC’s childhood vaccination schedule, doctors give most infant shots within very specific windows of time. They do not give some vaccines after a certain time passes. However, for some vaccinations, there is a “catch-up” window of a few months. Your doctor can advise you on how long you can delay each specific shot.

Do vaccines cause seizures?

Because vaccines are designed to trigger an immune response by the body, it’s possible for your child to develop a fever post-injection. Sometimes a child’s fever will spike to the point of causing a febrile seizure. However, experts consider this rare.

If you’d like to alter your child’s immunization schedule, consider your reasons for doing so — and be sure to talk with your pediatrician. They can help you determine what’s best for your child’s disease protection and for your peace of mind.