By: Jody Thomas, PhD & David K. Becker, MD, LMFT, FAAP
Many parents put off check-ups because they dread how their child might act when they need a shot. If your child—or you—are afraid of pain from getting a vaccine, you are not alone. At least two-thirds of children and one-fourth of adults have a fear of needles.
There are simple ways to help make it a positive, calm—and even pain-free poke. In fact, you can follow some easy steps, and immunizations may not bother your child at all.
Help your child feel more in control
It is natural to want to wait until the last minute on the way to the clinic to tell your child they are getting a shot. While you may think you are helping avoid stress, it makes more stress for you and for them. Being prepared sets the stage for a better experience.
Use words that create a positive story about their experience. Words matter. Try more neutral words like "pressure," "pinch," "poke" and "immunization" instead of "pain" and "shot." For example: "We get to go to the doctor and get medicine that helps keep you healthy" feels different than "We have to go to the doctor and get a shot."
Let them know you understand their worries. This is even more important if they already feel nervous or anxious. Telling kids that it is "not a big deal" or "don't worry" can make them feel like you do not understand their feelings, and actually make anxiety worse.
You can make your child feel heard but still help them cope at the same time. Say something like, "I know! It's not much fun. You're not looking forward to it, are you? I get it. That's why we're going to make a plan so you can feel more comfortable and in control." This can help your child feel like you are listening, and you are there for them. You are letting them know that their concerns are reasonable and there is something to do about them. These actions help all of us better manage our anxiety.
And don't apologize. We say we are sorry when we do something wrong. Taking care of your child's health is not wrong.
Provide a good reason why they need the vaccine. Knowing why can motivate your child. You can explain, "We get vaccines because it protects you from getting sick and keeps you healthy." For older kids, you can say, "Because it helps your body build immunity to fight off harmful infections." Pointing out that they are doing good for the community can be powerful, too.
Make a plan
Before you go, make a clear plan with your child and be ready to share it with your medical provider. Sometimes people think that having a medical procedure means giving up control. But feeling empowered with plan is an option, and it makes for a much better experience. When people know how to face a challenge, it is easier to feel in control.
There are even child-friendly guides to help you plan what your child wants to do to be more comfortable and how to avoid feeling pain from the poke. Here are a few ideas.
- Comfort: If your child likes the idea of being held there are many ways you and your child can sit that keep them safe, still and comforted by your touch and closeness. Your touch and the comfort positioning change how the body processes pain signals. It can work for older kids, too. Note: Kids should never be held down against their will for medical procedures.
- Numbing creams and sprays: Ask your doctor about choices for over the counter or prescription topical anesthetic cream, patches or cooling sprays. Follow the directions to know when to apply it. Some take about 30 minutes to work.
- Vibration: Most people don't realize that pain is actually "in our head." When our body feels a possible threat, it sends a warning signal along our nerves to the brain. But there are ways to stop the signal from reaching our brain. One way is to use vibration on the skin to create a traffic jam in the nervous system. When we place a vibration tool on the arm (or leg for younger kids) just above where the shot is given, it stops the signal, changes the sensation and prevents the pain.
- Distraction: You know how hard it can be to get your child's attention when they are deeply focused on a video or playing a game on their smartphone. Use that same tool to direct their attention away from anxiety and pain. Let them choose what they want to do to distract themselves before and during the immunization. A few ideas include telling a story, reading a book, singing a song and watching funny videos.
- Take deep breaths: Have your child practice taking easy, slow breaths in and out. It calms them down and lowers their body's reaction to pain. You can help them by breathing along with them. Blowing bubbles or pinwheels also can help slow their breathing and distract them from the immunization.
Be sure to let the doctor know that you and your child have talked about choices and share your plan.
When the anxiety is too much to handle
For most kids and adults, these strategies are enough to find the sense of control they need to feel calm and confident during medical procedures. However, for some children and adults, the anxiety can be too overwhelming. They may need more help overcoming their past negative experience. If so, seek support from a mental health professional or child life specialist.
Keep in mind that how you are feeling has a big impact on how your child will react during a medical procedure. Stress is contagious, but so is calm.
You know your child best
Some parents don't speak up because they feel intimidated, or the doctor or nurse doesn't ask. They may worry that they will upset someone. It's okay to speak up when you know what works for your child. Your pediatrician needs and wants your input! We all want the same thing—to have the best experience possible. It makes things better now and sets your child up for a lifetime of feeling good about their health care.
About the authors
David K. Becker, MD, LMFT, FAAP, is a clinical professor and medical director of Pediatric Integrative Medicine at the Stad Center for Pediatric Pain, Palliative and Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Section on Integrative Medicine.
Jody Thomas, PhD, is a clinical health psychologist specializing in pediatric medical illness and trauma and an internationally known pediatric pain expert. She is founder and CEO of the Meg Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering kids and families to prevent and relieve pain. She is an adjunct faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine.