Doctor's visits for a vaccines are in some children's worst nightmares. Sometimes, fear coupled with poor experience can lead to a life-long fear of needles and doctors; however, pediatricians believe this issue may be averted or at least minimized during childhood.
Maulin Soneji, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist, recommends several practical tips for helping your child resiliently maneuver a shot at the doctor’s office.
Soneji says the most important thing is for caretakers to be in communication with their children, giving the child time to prepare for and digest what is going to happen and why. Making a plan for the day can alleviate the child’s fear and nervousness.
He says to avoid springing a shot on a child last-minute. While a caretaker doesn’t need to prepare a child months in advance, giving them a heads-up at least a day before the doctor’s visit can make a huge difference in the child’s experience.
To help ensure a positive experience for their child, caretakers can see if their child is scheduled for a vaccine at their next doctor’s visit. Use electronic medical records, specifically MyChart, to directly message your child’s physician. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clearly outlines which vaccines are recommended by age.
You and your child can practice giving a shot using a toy syringe and a stuffed animal so your child has an idea of how the doctor’s visit will play out. Take the stuffed animal and clean the injection area with an “alcohol swab,” a rag works great, then use a toy syringe and give an injection to the stuffed animal in that area. If your child is comfortable with it, have them give the animal this vaccine and explain to the toy why this is important.
“Talk to your child to tell them they’re going to get a shot when they go to the doctor,” Soneji says. “Since children have a great imagination and can picture all sorts of outcomes you may not think of, this practice may help alleviate some of their fears. Let them know they’ll be brave and that you’ll be there with them.”
Children are given tasks and assignments all day, but often without any explanation as to why — and that’s important for children to understand. It can be helpful to explain how vaccines help them stay healthy, prevent them from getting infections, and from getting others sick.
To grasp the importance of vaccines, caretakers should understand what they’re protecting their child from. Research these illnesses to understand both the short- and long-term complications that can result from contracting these diseases.
Depending on the age of your child, you may need to simplify the reason for the shot. Soneji recommends saying ‘It’s going to help protect you from a germ that can make you very sick’ or ‘This sickness can make it really hard for you to play games with your friends and learn in school.’
Bring a distraction
Another way to soothe the fear of a shot is to offer a child a distraction during the injection.
Most parents can distract their children enough to get a quick shot in without any sort of special intervention, Soneji says. This can be done by giving the child options. Would they like to sit in your lap, hold your hand, watch the needle go in, hold their favorite stuffed toy, hold their blanket, listen to music, read a book, watch a movie, play with a fidget, or play a musical instrument? Give your child choices, which helps them feel more in control, and then follow through on whatever they choose.
“Following through is what’s going to make your child feel safe and less nervous or anxious about that visit,” Soneji says.
Other interventions can also be requested. Buzzy devices, small devices that engage the nerve fibers of the shot area using vibration and cold, can help distract the child from pain. Numbing creams can provide another alternative for pain-sensitive children.
What to expect
Soneji discourages parents from telling their child a shot is not going to hurt, or they’re not going to get a shot, unless the parent has physician confirmation. Lying, even unintentionally, can degrade trust between the child and parent and between the child and the physician.
“Tell them it’s going to be a small poke or a small pinch, it’s going to hurt for a few minutes, and it’ll go away. You will be there to help them be brave in this situation,” Soneji says.
If the caretaker has told the child they wouldn’t have any shots, but they find out they will when they arrive at the doctor’s office, then Soneji suggests asking the doctor if this vaccine can wait until another visit. Since many immunizations are scheduled within a time frame of several years, it is possible that this request will be easily accommodated.
When it’s done, celebrate your child’s bravery and resilience! Reward your child with something they enjoy, such as going for a walk in the park, to a toy store, visiting their favorite restaurant, or having a family game night.