Infections in the first year of life are common and often severe. The newborn host demonstrates both quantitative and qualitative differences to the adult in nearly all aspects of immunity, which at least partially explain the increased susceptibility to infection. Here we discuss how differences in susceptibility to infection result not out of a state of immaturity, but rather reflect adaptation to the particular demands placed on the immune system in early life. We review the mechanisms underlying host defense in the very young, and discuss how specific developmental demands increase the risk of particular infectious diseases. In this context, we discuss how this plasticity, i.e. the capacity to adapt to demands observed in early life, also provides the potential to leverage protection of the young against infection and disease through a number of interventions.