The first 1,000 days of life offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put babies on the right path. Immunisation has an essential role to play
The most important days of your life are behind you. No, it wasn’t your school years or your time at university. It wasn’t when you met your partner or went travelling or got your career off the ground.
By far the most significant time of your life was the 1,000 days from conception to your second birthday. This can be hard to accept: you weren’t born for the first part of it and can’t remember the rest.
However, the evidence has been piling up for decades. Nutrition in utero and in early childhood, along with physical development and emotional attachment to parents as an infant, can set us up for success later in life.
Of course, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Some people benefit from a good start but things can go off the rails later in life. Others have a rough time early on but go on to live healthy and happy lives. But on average, your chances are best if you’ve had a good start.
Pregnancy, parenting and protection
Along with high-quality nutrition and having nurturing parents, immunisation supports child development by preventing infectious diseases that can have serious short- and long-term impacts. It starts with protection in utero.
Some vaccines are recommended during pregnancy. Pregnant women are a top priority group for flu vaccination, according to the WHO. The vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of stillbirth and it also reduces the risk of being hospitalised with the flu during pregnancy. It can also help protect the baby from catching the flu.
Pertussis vaccination is also recommended for pregnant women in many European countries. Mothers who have the vaccine pass protective antibodies on to their babies in utero. By having a pertussis vaccine at the right time, they can give babies protection during their vulnerable first few weeks – before they are old enough to have their first infant immunisations.
Vaccines offered in childhood can provide protection for the next generation. Take rubella, for example. If a woman is infected during pregnancy, it may result in miscarriage. But, if the baby survives, Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) can lead to profound problems for their baby, including visual impairment, deafness, heart abnormalities and a range of other mental and physical development issues.
Vaccinating young children with MMR means that they don’t catch rubella and spread it to their mothers or their mothers’ friends when they are pregnant.
Healthy for life
Early childhood vaccines prevent infection at a vulnerable time in life. If a very young child catches measles, then it can have a devastating effect on mental development causing a fatal condition called SSPE. Measles can be mild for some children, but leads to hospitalisation for others.
On top of protecting against measles, mumps and rubella, the MMR vaccine is associated with better overall health. It has been known for several years that children who are not vaccinated against tend to have higher rates of other illnesses – aside from measles.
Researchers now believe that infection with measles triggers a kind of immune system ‘amnesia’ – reducing the number of memory B cells that circulate in the body. These cells are responsible for remembering bugs that the body has fought off in the past. If this memory is partially wiped, the immune system has to start again, making it vulnerable to a host of illnesses it had previously fought off.
Immunisation during pregnancy and in the first two years of life puts children on the right path. Health is a prerequisite for physical and emotional development; for growing and playing and finding one’s way in the world. Nutrition, housing and parenting matter too – but none is enough on its own. In the recipe for good health, vaccines are a vital ingredient.
To find out which vaccines to have at what stage of pregnancy and childhood, ask your healthy professional and consult the vaccine schedules for European countries.
More on the first 1,000 days
The priceless contribution of the first 1,000 days of life is increasingly recognised by experts. UNICEF, the WHO and the Gates Foundation view this early stage of life as a window of opportunity for addressing a range of health challenges including cognitive development and obesity in later life.
The UK National Childcare Trust (NCT) wants the first 1,000 days to be seen as a crucial stage of life – just like ‘teenager’ and ‘senior citizen’.