Experts say parents with kids too young to get COVID vaccine need a 'blanket rule' for spending time with unvaccinated adults

Experts recommend that unvaccinated family members keep their distance from children too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19
Experts recommend that unvaccinated family members keep their distance from children too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19. (Getty Images)

Having a newborn or young child who isn't old enough for most major vaccinations has always been a stressful time for parents. But dealing with this during a global pandemic — when children under the age of 5 still aren't eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — is a complication of a higher order.

There were more than 769,000 new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. on Friday and cases in children have dramatically spiked. If you have family members who want to see the baby but aren't fully vaccinated against COVID-19, what are you supposed to do? “This is a hot-button topic, and I get asked about it a lot,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life.

Doctors agree that it's generally best to ask unvaccinated family members to keep their distance. "Children who are not vaccinated because they are not eligible need to be around adults who are vaccinated, period," Dr. Sunanda Gaur, professor of pediatrics at the Rutgers Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “We need to protect the children.”

This is even more important with newborns, according to Gaur. “Newborns are particularly susceptible to infections,” she explains. “There’s a concept that we call ‘cocooning,’ which is where all of the adults around the baby are vaccinated to try to protect the baby. It doesn't work if someone is unvaccinated.”

Russo says that unvaccinated family members “pose a problem” to maintaining low levels of COVID-19 risk around a newborn. “I usually recommend that you play the long game and protect your child until they can get vaccinated,” Russo says. “Everyone is going to be exposed to this virus eventually — that’s inevitable. But you want your baby to have optimal immune protection when they are exposed so that they’re protected.”

If family members refuse to get vaccinated but offer to wear a mask around the baby, Gaur still recommends telling them no. “I would advise that unvaccinated people not be around your baby, mask or not,” she says. “Unvaccinated people are more likely to get infected. A mask is not a 100 percent guarantee that they would not transmit the virus to our child. I don’t see a reason to put your baby at risk.”

Video: How to make your baby's first vaccinations as pain-free as possible

Of course, all of this can be tricky to navigate from a social perspective and every family has to make their own decisions around COVID exposure risk and their baby. “It’s more than a medical judgment,” Russo says. “How much bridge burning are you going to do with family members if you do the best thing from a medical perspective and say you can’t visit the baby?”

To handle this with as minimal stress as possible, clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, a professor at NYU and co-host of the “Mind in View” podcast, suggests having a blanket family rule when it comes to unvaccinated people being around your baby. "You first have to start with your own family and decide what your boundaries are," she tells Yahoo Life. "Don't make it person-to-person dependent — have a blanket rule. That takes the emotion out of it and doesn't make it feel like you're picking and choosing."

Then, if someone is unvaccinated and wants to visit your baby, you simply tell them that this is the policy your family has decided on. “If you blame ‘the policy’ vs. making it an individual thing, it’s sometimes easier for people to understand and be less emotional about,” Gallagher says. “It’s about coming up with a plan and trying to be consistent. When you're sharing it with your loved ones, make it clear that it’s not a personal thing, but this is your family’s policy.”

Dr. John Schreiber, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that he recommends suggesting that unvaccinated family members get immunized so that they can visit your child. “If they choose not to, then that’s their decision,” he says. “But you gave them an option.”

You may feel that your family member won’t get the vaccine for that reason, but Russo says it happens more than most people realize. “There have been many instances where people decided to get vaccinated when those barriers were put in place, particularly around seeing grandchildren,” he says.

Depending on your personal feelings and what you decide as a family, Schreiber says you could potentially decide to allow unvaccinated family members to see your baby outside while wearing an N95 mask and practicing good hand hygiene. “It’s not 100 percent safe, but it would probably be fine,” he says. “It's just very cold in many areas of the country right now.”

Regardless of what you decide, Gallagher says it’s important to not feel guilty about your decisions. “Have some self-compassion for your boundaries,” she says. “Own and acknowledge your choices, and know that you are valid in making them.”

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